Directed by Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov
Herzog's latest carries on his documentary interest in the cold, the primitive, the outlier. When the director stumbled across Russian filmmaker Vasyukov's four-hour series about Siberian hunters, he got his permission to reedit it for international audiences—and to add his own distinctively Herzogian commentary. The result is a brisk, spring-to-winter portrait of trappers practicing a centuries-old way of life: though these Russians have adopted some modern conveniences—snowmobiles, chainsaws—their craft, their trapping techniques, have gone unchanged; skis and canoes are still made the same way perfected long ago by forgotten ancestors. These are humans, more or less, in a state of nature, "self reliant... truly free" peoples with no radios, bureaucracies, or taxes. They're totally indifferent to electoral politics. And there's something appealing about this off-the-grid lifestyle, especially its connection to nature. This is a movie for people who hate their phones.
But Herzog makes little argument for the superiority of the Siberians' authenticity or their snowy, picturesque landscapes. The people are happy, sure, but I feel like we're supposed to believe they're happier, too. Just as reasonably, you could say Siberia looks cold, hard, and lonely, and that Herzog is being a bit naive, romantic. Much of the insight, casual wisdom and philosophical rumination that typically characterize his docs is missing here, probably because he wasn't present for the filming. He's more observational than analytical; he never wonders whether the trappers weep at night.
The resulting frank ethnography makes Happy People feel like something you might watch in grade school if your teacher called in sick. That's not an insult: the region's customs, traditions, and unique climate are compelling; the movie's also a charming portrait of the loyalty of dogs, the film's heroes-in-the-margins, and there's a particularly moving section about descendants of the indigenous peoples whose community has been ravaged by poverty and alcoholism. Otherwise, though, the residents of the tiny village of Bakhta seem happy, thus the title, and this is the film's ultimate point: Happy People lends dignity to people whose ostensible hardships would be easy to pity—pity the people of Siberia don't want.
Opens January 25