Active Ingredients: Compelling characters and situations; Narrative structure; strong footage
Side Effects: Video quality; Lack of patience in editing
Culled from 4 hours of footage shot by Russian documentarian Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner Herzog’s 90 min mixdown of Happy People documents a year in the life of Siberian trappers and the extraordinary daily tasks they must perform to survive. As he demonstrated with Grizzly Man, Herzog has a knack for teasing his own kind of story out of someone else’s footage, and in this film he is fascinated by the process of work, especially the incredible history behind the trapper’s chores. The men dig out canoes, construct skis and create sophisticated traps with simple tools, in much the same way as did primitive man, Herzog is quick to point out, and this long strand of tradition behind the trappers’ crafts represents a profound connection to the past. In that sense, Happy People makes an interesting companion piece to Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, exploring the yawning abyss of time separating us from prehistoric man.
Despite graininess and occasional poor video quality, Vasyukov’s footage is striking for its focus on situating the trappers—and their ever-present loyal dogs, as skilled at their job as the men—against the backdrop of their landscape. While they battle thick river ice, extreme cold and ursine interference the trappers remain serene, proud of the simple, hard work enabling their solitude and close connection to the land. Introducing the film at the DOC NYC festival, Herzog echoed the trappers’ plea for audiences not to pity them, because, like so few of us, they are truly happy people.