Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010; dir. Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov) is about the small town of Bakhta in the middle of the Taiga in Siberia, isolated by geography and weather from the rest of the world, accessible only by helicopter and boat during the summer, and much of the year completely inaccessible. Here is another of Werner Herzog’s studies in humankind. Though he narrates, this film lacks the characteristic irony of his other documentaries. It takes a more sober and objective approach to documenting its subject than I’ve seen in his other films. This does not mean that the film is uninteresting—it’s fascinating—but at the same time it may be more conventional in its method. This may be because Herzog took a four-hour documentary on which the film is based and edited it down to 90 minutes and provided his own narration. In doing so, he imposed his own sense of shape and form on the content. This means the cinematography, the choice of subject matter, the general documentary approach were set by the original Russian filmmakers.
The focus is mostly on a trapper who lives with his family in Bakhta and who spends much of the very long and cold winter making his way from one trap to another, looking for ermine pelts to sell and for food to keep himself alive. It’s difficult to imagine the solitude, the severe conditions, the social and physical abnegation he and others like him suffer. The film makes you feel it.
Interestingly, although the film shows people whom we assume to be the trapper’s wife and child, they are hardly paid attention to. They seem ancillary to him, at least in the film’s view, willing to carry out their roles but otherwise to be faceless and unnamed.
Herzog’s interest lies in the pride the trapper takes in his work, the skills he applies, his opinions of what makes a good and bad trapper (greed makes a bad trapper). He is an intelligent man who thinks in a fundamental but sophisticated way about his life and his fellows. But his sphere of existence is limited. There’s no condescension in this film’s treatment of its subject. There’s also no suggestion that the people of the Taiga lead in any way necessarily better or worse lives than people in other parts of the world. (We are free as viewers to reach our own conclusions). What Herzog admires, as his voiceover explains, is their self-reliance, their independence. Yet they’re not really independent after all. The trapper uses fuel to power generators and lanterns and the snowmobile that takes him from one trap to the other. The village Christmas celebration (which occurs on January 6) resembles in many ways an American holiday celebration. The trapper himself is an educated man who came to the Taiga back in the 1970. The outer world may be far away, but it is there, nonetheless, and the village depends on connections with it for survival.