Werner Herzog has an inclination, some might say a slightly perverse one, towards very difficult shoots. In one of his early movies, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” he and his film crew shot in the Peruvian rainforest, along the coast of the Amazon, with the cast and crew climbing mountains and bushwhacking, all carrying heavy movie equipment. It was one of the most notorious shoots in film history. Tensions were so bad that, compounded by the stress and his own violent temper, lead actor Klaus Kinski wildly fired gunshots on set, blowing off a finger of an extra.
Hopefully, the shooting of “Happy People” was milder. As the full title partially suggests, the movie profiles one year of the lives of several hunters in Taiga, an extremely remote region of Siberia.
Since “Happy People” has the look and feel of a Herzog movie one might assume he shot it. In fact, minor Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov did. Originally, this was a four hour Russian TV special. Herzog has edited the footage down to 94 minutes and included his own trademark, often entertaining voiceover. The two filmmakers share a directing credit on this version.
Vasyukov spared no effort or expense in shooting his movie. For face-to-face interviews, he brought along bulky studio lights. He does a couple of helicopter shots, and even finds room for a crane shot. All of those things would have been difficult to arrange for such a remote, outdoor shoot. There are also a couple of really good edits done for shots that couldn’t have been easy to get.
The movie profiles a few hunters in the village of Bakhita, home to 300 inhabitants. The most interesting parts of the movie are where we see them making their equipment. One hunter cuts a tree down to make a pair of skies. Another two convert a tree into a canoe. They set up traps, also made entirely from trees. We’re told each hunter makes 1000 traps per season. I don’t know why they don’t reuse the same ones every year.
The way these people live almost entirely off the land is a contrast to the wasteful North American lifestyle. Their tools, their homes, and probably their clothes are handmade. The only thing they import are necessities like chainsaws and a really old skidoo. I suspect they find ways to keep those things running long after the point where most people would just throw them out.
The title “Happy People” comes from a line Herzog uses when the hunters leave the village in the winter to hunt full time. They are free of taxes and virtually all living expenses and live as freely as anyone possibly can.
The lives of these people are romanticized to some extent. When Westerners watch this movie it’s like a vacation. How many people, frustrated by modern living, have idly contemplated giving up the work day and going off in the woods? The people in this movie are more-or-less living that life. But I suspect it’s not the life that most people would want. There’s lots of hard work and majority of it’s done in the Siberian winter.
Overall, “Happy People” is an interesting movie but much less entertaining than Herzog’s other recent nature documentaries, “Grizzly Man” and “Encounters At the End of the World.” Both movies are more than worth watching. “Happy People” doesn’t captivate the way those two movies do. The subject matter could use some shaping. And compared to his other movies, it’s missing that certain something unique that Herzog often brings to the table. But since Herzog is working off of found footage, it’s hard to say if there was much more he could have done.
** (out of 4)
David Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org