Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Siberian rhapsody: Vasyukov & Herzog's HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA

If you have ever wan-ted to spend some time in the distant and cold Siberian wonder-land known as the Taiga, have I got a movie for you! It's a documentary originally shot by, from what I can gather, a newcom-er to Russian filmmak-ing, Dmitry Vasyukov (for Russian television, perhaps?) and then edited down from its four-hour length to just 90 minutes by documentary maven Werner Herzog, who then narrates the mini-film he has created out of Vasyukov's footage.

Herr Herzog (Grizzly Man, The White Diamond), shown at right, is no slouch when it comes to the documentary format, though his narrations (Cave of Forgotten Dreams -- yikes!) can sometimes up-end things a bit. Here, though, he has put together a lovely little narrative guide to his compressed version of Vasyulov's film (the original filmmaker is shown below), allowing us to spend what seems like just the right amount of time in this frosty landscape with its thought-ful but taciturn trappers as they go about their work (lots) and play (little) during the full calendar year of the movie's sub-title.

What makes this film as unusual as it is, and so innately interesting, I think, is that the inhabitants here live and work in conditions not all that much different from those of a century (or two, or three) past. How it this possible, in this day and age, we wonder? Well, the Taiga is still a wilderness, remote from civilization (as we know it, at least). Running water? Telephones (of any kind)? Medical aid? Forget 'em. Along with much else that we would consider mandatory. (They do seem to have electricity -- or batteries.) And yet, as we spend time here, especially with the hunter/trappers on whom the documentarians concentrate, the lives of these singular men begin to seem, well, more and more "normal."

I believe that Herzog's narrative (composed with the help of Vasyukov and Herzog's son Rudolf), always fluid and to the point, has much to do with this, along with his usual feeling for and understanding of his subjects. However odd the place that the filmmaker chooses to visit -- in the middle of a bunch of bears or on death row -- he brings us up-close-and-personal as best he can. And this is usually quite close enough.

The men we spend most of our time with are two hunter/trappers, Vasily and Gehnady, from whom we learn everything from how to set a foolproof and relatively humane trap, to how to keep other predators away from the kill -- and mice away from one's provisions. The small windows of their huts are sealed with soft plastic rather than glass, which the bears too easily break.

We learn about trees and skis, and the importance of a straight board. As for tools, "A good wedge is a man's savior," notes a trapper, as he demonstrates just why. Mosquitoes? Yeah, and like you've never seen them (the natives must make their own insect repellent -- out of tar).

All of this information and so much more must be passed from father to son, as we occasionally see being done. Is there any choice in this for the offspring? Do any of them head off to the big city? It would seem not. With no TV, radio or newspapers, do the children even know that an outside world exists?

As you might suspect, the dogs here are indeed man's best friends, and probably the most moving (and caring) parts of the movie involve the men's tales about their canines. One story, concerning Vasily's dogs and a bear, is something else.

With only a couple of exceptions over the years, the subjects that seem to interest Herr Herzog, he manages to make interest us, too. With Happy People, as with so many other of his films, we viewers simply trail along behind him, happily. The documentary, via Music Box Films, opens this Friday, January 25, in New York City exclusively at the IFC Center. To see all upcoming playdates -- in 25 cities around the country -- simply click here, and then click on the word THEATERS about halfway down the screen.

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