Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Dmitry Vasyukov & Werner Herzog)

Like his earlier Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog's latest documentary is carved from another filmmaker's work. Even placed in this context, however, Happy People stands apart from the rest of Herzog's filmography. Though the bulk of Grizzly Man consisted of Timothy Treadwell's footage, Herzog visited the same locations as Treadwell and filmed new interviews with the people who knew him. Happy People does not contain a single frame shot by Herzog, and the globetrotting director never visited the location. Instead, all footage comes from Russian documentarian Dmitry Vasyukov's four-part Russian television miniseries. Herzog watched the miniseries at a friend's home in Los Angeles, fell in love with it, and contacted Vasyukov with an idea. Herzog wanted to edit the 8-hour miniseries into a 90-minute feature, with his own new voiceover narration. Vasyukov gave Herzog his blessing, and this film is the result, with both men credited as directors, though Herzog is more of a remixer than director here.
The film spends a year in the remote Siberian Taiga, focusing on a handful of men carving out a mostly self-sufficient existence in some intensely rugged conditions. We see men building canoes and skis, hunting, fishing, trapping animals, training their dogs, making temporary but sturdy shacks to spend the isolated hunting pilgrimages during the winter months, creating mosquito repellent from the bark of a tree during the summer months. These are some of Herzog's pet subjects, these driven, determined men doing difficult things in hostile, strange, and beautiful landscapes. The cameras required to shoot in this inhospitable terrain produce images that are flatter and muddier than we are used to seeing in a film with Herzog's name on it, but they capture scenes that fit right in to his body of work. Some of the most beautiful images approach Herzog's talent for making natural landscapes and the people in them look mythic, mystical, and alien. I particularly loved the underwater camera following fish below the ice, a snowmobile gliding through a forest of white, and fishermen in canoes at night, lit torches attached to the front of their crafts to attract fish. And a moment when a campaigning politician pulls up to shore in a giant boat, women dressed in white behind him singing a schmaltzy ode to positivity while an indifferent, bemused crowd of Siberians goes about its business finds a place in Herzog's gallery of eccentric futility.
Herzog's narration and need to constantly mythologize can occasionally grate, as when he gives a speech a Tea Party member might love about the men needing no taxes or government. "No women, either," my wife turned to me to say near the conclusion of this speech. The film is surprisingly uninterested in the women and children who occasionally wander into frame. Maybe this was Vasyukov's failing, but another interesting film about them is buried here.
Still, this is a lovable little film well worth seeing.

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