The title of Happy People: A Year in the Taiga describes well what the documentary is about. For one year, it follows trappers from the village of Bakhtia, located in the Siberian taiga.
In the voiceover, co-director Werner Herzog explains why the trappers are happy with their lives and with hunting in balmy minus 33-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures:
“Out on their own, trappers become what they essentially are: happy people. Accompanied only by their dogs, they live off the land. They are completely self-reliant. They are truly free.”
The trappers’ strong connection to the land for their lives and their livelihoods becomes a recurring theme throughout the documentary. They demonstrate this knowledge in many ways, through making their own skis, canoes, and mosquito repellent. They fish and hunt. They build traps using tree branches.
Herzog remarks on how few “modern” technologies the trappers use — the shotgun, the snowmobile, the motorboat. An amusing sequence shows one trapper using his shotgun to catch fish, but the overwhelming emphasis lies on the people’s reliance on other means.
This approach reminds me of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, wherein Flaherty documented Nanook’s customs in an attempt to capture the Inuit tribe’s traditions. The famous scene when Nanook captures the seal through the ice is a dangerous and enthralling one, but it omits a key detail about Nanook’s life: He usually hunted with a gun. Both of these films exhibit a nostalgia for another time, but from the maker’s point of view, not necessarily the subject’s point of view.
What I appreciate most about Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is the cinematography. Though the makers had the added bonus of beautiful scenery, the cinematography is still stunning. Establishing shots of the Yenisei River during different seasons. Unique framings of subjects through tree branches and other natural frames. Rack focuses. Slow zooms. Extreme close-ups.
And the interviews with the trappers didn’t ruin the beauty of this cinematography. Let’s face it: While the talking head framed in a medium close-up shot is standard, it is also visually boring. Coupling those shots with beautiful B-roll can make for an uneven viewing experience. I understand their purposes, but after a while they get tiring to see over and over. And the documentaries that overrely on them run together after a while.
The makers of Happy People do use a few interview sequences throughout, but even better they record the trappers doing something and talking about it at the same time. The trappers don’t narrate the process of what they are doing, but they do offer insight into why they do what they do. This approach makes the trappers and, by extension, the film more interesting.