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From directors Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog – and thanks to DVD distribution from Second Sight – comes 2010 feature documentary Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010), an affectionate look at the lives of those who live and work in the remote Siberian wilderness. Herzog has produced some extraordinary factual films over the past two decades, and whilst Happy People may not quite reach the same heights of awe-inspiring beauty of Encounters at the End of the World (2007), it certainly sits well within the unique director’s oeuvre.

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Structured into seasonal chapters, the focus of the film falls upon the men of the small Bakhta village as they prepare for the annual winter hunt. Vasyukov and Herzog go at great lengths to highlight the inherited skill and knowledge that is utilised by the Taiga’s indigenous populace in order to create skis and canoes from the surrounding forest. Their mastery of carpentry is a wonder to behold, selecting only the finest materials with which to entrust their fragile existence. Malleable wood is carefully manipulated by metal and fire until it becomes perfectly suited for the job at hand – a broken ski or porous canoe can easily be an instant death sentence in the harsh Siberian wilderness.

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Of course, this wouldn’t be a Herzog presentation without a healthy dose of existentialist pondering on the nature of life and death, and the ruthless environs of the Taiga are perfectly suited to such explorations. Without roads, rail lines, phones or even running water, the small community is wholly reliant on its hunters in order to sustain itself. Killing is a necessity for these men – without the meat and pelts from local species such as deer, woodcock and sables (a stoat-like creature), the indigenous populace would have no sustenance, nor economy.

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However, both Vasyukov and Herzog are keen to highlight the remarkable sense of warmth and humanity that emits from the solitary huntsmen. Humane, intricate traps are used to quickly kill and secure their potential prey, allowing the hunters to effectively do the rounds and collect their bloodless bounties, many of which are frozen solid by the extreme cold in their final moments.

As with Herzog’s exceptional Grizzly Man (2005), the shadow of the bear looms large across the Taiga. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking exchanges, one hunter recalls how his beloved previous dog – a bitch called Smokey – died in his arms after being eviscerated by a hungry bear that wandered into town. Were it not for this extraordinarily strong bond between man and dog, the hunter claims that he himself would have been killed by the bear, were it not for Smokey’s timely (and fatal) intervention. On the 150km journey home, these fiercely loyal dogs run the entire way alongside their snowmobile-mounted masters – a truly remarkable feat.

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Despite the extreme hardship that each subject faces simply trying to survive in the Taiga, Herzog himself proclaims them ‘happy people’, truly free from rules, taxes, government, laws and bureaucracy, “equipped only with their individual values and standard of conduct”. Once again, Herzog presents us with a world seemingly alien to our own, ruled only by the never-ending cycle of life and death. Happy People may not be quite as remarkable as his very best work, but it is still unmistakeably his documentary, despite insisting on merely co-director accreditation.

Herzog documentaries, if not quite his recent fictional films, have taken on the esteem reserved for an artist who’s been consistent over the decades, like Woody Allen. Discerning audiences are confident that even the most minor efforts will still be fundamentally Woody, or fundamentally Werner.

But for every instant classic like Into the Abyss or The White Diamond there are lesser efforts like Cave of Forgotten Dreams or Encounters at the End of the World that are a bit slight, almost like they belong on the Discovery Channel instead of in a multiplex.

Herzog’s eccentric philosophical narration is the lone selling point of those films and, at times, he almost appears to be indulging in self-parody. Happy People isn’t one of those movies. The reason why: Herzog distilled this 94-minute film from Dmitry Vasyukov’s four-hour epic made for Russian television. This allows Herzog to pick and choose the richest moments of Herzog-ian peculiarity.

The bulk of the film follows a fur trapper along the Yenisei River in the Siberian Taiga. This long-bearded man’s man is straight out of the pages of naturalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau. He lives almost completely without the aid of modern convenience, the lone exception being his rinky-dink snowmobile.

Let’s forgive him this, as he has to travel hundreds of kilometres just to prepare his many fur traps. At least 15 minutes focus on this trapper building a set of skis. He chooses a particular type of tree, cuts it a certain way and then heats the wood over just the right type of fire. He goes through a similar process to carve his canoe, establish his base camp and build and stock huts close to each trap. The pride he takes from these efforts reinforces how much profound joy there is in simple subsistence living, when done right.

Herzog’s also quite fond of the trapper’s dogs. He’s fascinated by how little food the trapper feeds a dog in the morning, even though the trapper has a bond with his dog that would make the most fawning dog park weirdo seem downright abusive by comparison. The trapper claims that in lean winters it was a loyal dog that fed him; it’s fascinating to watch the trapper collaborate with a dog to rustle out and kill small game.

One strange element is that the dubbing of the Taiga’s people has been done by American-sounding voices. They sound like they just finished attending a Tupperware party, circa 1976, or like Darrin and his boss on Bewitched. You know, yuppies.

Alcoholism is the bane of the Taiga’s few remaining indigenous people, who earn what little money they can by chopping up driftwood. One scene involving these people will stand alongside Stroszek’s dancing chicken, Fitzcarraldo’s effort to haul a boat over a mountain and all the other grand moments of the Herzog canon.

We meet a middle-aged indigenous man. He explains how significant Totemistic dolls are to his culture. We meet his “kept woman” (more like a grandmother) for about 20 seconds, as she proudly shows the dolls said to possess protective spirits. Cut to a fire. The man has burned their house down via that old straw that breaks the backs of drunks everywhere – the un-extinguished cigarette butt.

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You have to imagine in the four-hour film this story was fleshed out and the fire afforded the requisite weight. Herzog cramming the tragedy into less than two minutes makes it deeply penetrating. Life can be cruel and rarely does a film pound this point home so economically.

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The drunk’s lament is not for his home and possessions, incidentally, but for his dolls.

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