Far from the emptiness of the Siberian Taiga where Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov spent a year shooting spectacular images of a vanishing way of life, Werner Herzog spotted a rare parking place while driving on a friend’s Los Angeles street and decided to make an impromptu visit. His friend was home, watching his big-screen TV, Vasyukov’s four-hour cut of his footage.
Instantly enthralled by the sable trappers, their beautiful, highly skilled working dogs and the endless landscape, Herzog approached Yasyukov about transforming his work and was given the go ahead. “Happy People: A Year in The Taiga,” now a riveting 90 minutes, follows the hunters through the seasons and features Herzog’s essential narration, delivered in his unmistakable voice and cadence.
The trappers live in Bakhtia, a wilderness village of 300 inhabitants on the river Yenisei, inaccessible except by helicopter or boat. The film opens in spring, the trappers at home in the village, beginning preparations for the next hunting season. Summer brings days with 20 hours of sunlight but the growing season is brief and fall and its endless rains arrive. With the river swelling, the trappers transport their supplies and tools to their separate, remote hunting grounds, reestablish their traps, shore up their huts, and as winter closes in, their cycle begins again.
The trapper with whom Vasyukov spent the most time expresses enormous respect and feeling for the Taiga and the river (a four-season byway, and a provider of fish, a staple of the the villagers’ and dogs’ diets) and a profound acceptance of his harmonious but difficult life.
Startling images weave their way through “Happy People”: in late spring the ice in the river breaking up, seemingly suddenly and all at once and flowing north to the Arctic Sea; a swimming reindeer with a dog in eager but futile pursuit; the majestic trees bent under the weighty snow; and going home for Christmas break, a hunter pilots his snowmobile on the frozen Yenisei, in the perpetual darkness, his dog running behind for the entirety of the 150-kilometer trip, giving new meaning to the phrase “good dog.”
“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” will open in New York at the IFC Center on Friday, January 25.