Sunday, 15 April 2012

HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Werner Herzog's re-edit of Dmitry Vasyukov's four-hour exploration of life in the extreme north of Russia is a fascinating meditation on ages-old livelihoods that still exist in this modern age.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
(2010) dir. Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner Herzog
Starring: Werner Herzog (as narrator)


By Greg Klymkiw

Freedom in the northern Boreal forests of Siberia is in abundant supply. So is peace, quiet and the power of the natural world. There is a price to pay, however. Bitter cold (dipping to 50 degrees below zero), back-breaking toil and virtually no time to spend with family and friends.

Such is the life of Gennady, a trapper who spends months in the deep bush of the Taiga, trudging through 1000 square miles of territory to secure furs to earn a living. Using ages-old methods and hand-crafted implements, the only modern accoutrements are a snowmobile and a chainsaw. His only company and often, a necessary lifeline, is his dog.

With Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Werner Herzog has taken a four-hour-long documentary by Dmitry Vasyukov and re-edited the piece into a lean 90 minutes - complete with Herzog's distinctively dramatic narration. In addition to spending time with Gennady, we see the lives of other northern dwellers - a vaguely red-necked trapper who is related to the late, great filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and a family of aboriginal people who are afflicted with alcoholism to such a degree that their traditional culture is rapidly dwindling.

Even at 90 minutes, the pace might well prove challenging for most viewers, but for me, it allowed an opportunity to get a sense of what life must be like in this glorious, though harsh land. The film also provides a unique window into the soul of Gennady - a deeply intelligent and philosophical man. His ruminations on both life and his toil are utterly fascinating and there are plenty moments of solitude to take in the stunningly photographed landscapes while also thinking deeply about Gennady's perspectives on nature and to form your own.

While Herzog's narration, as always, is a Germanically-tinged delight, he makes the odd choice to have American actors in voice-over replace the Russian language. I suspect this was either to make the film more palatable for English language audiences and to also force us to keep our eyes riveted to the images. Or perhaps both. Alas, the actors' voice work is very distracting and I'd have preferred to hear the original Russian - unfettered by flawed vocal renderings of the film's subjects.

The movie also made me long to see Vasyukov's four-hour version. Siberia is cool - in more ways than one - and it's a world that looks like it would indeed be a great place to spend more time from the comfort of one's seat in the theatre or at home.

These are minor quibbles and one does get used to the actor voice-overs. Try, however, to see the film on a big screen.

Big is where this tale belongs.

"Happy People: A Year in the Taiga" is currently in theatrical release via Mongrel Media. In Toronto, it is currently playing at the Hot Docs Bloor Cinema - a perfect venue to enjoy the film in all its visual splendour.