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Werner Herzog's Year With The 'Happy People' Of Siberia

Studio Babelsberg

Being happy is relative and subjective, meaning different things for different people in different parts of the world. And that's certainly the case for the resilient villagers profiled in Werner Herzog's and Dmitry Vasyukov's documentary Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, which tracks all four seasons among a scrappy group who live where few could.

There are two ways into the tiny town (population 300) profiled in the film: by helicopter and by boat, and for only a few months a year. The area is otherwise smothered by bitter cold and intimidating snow; as beautiful as it can be, it's hardly a tourist haven. Herzog and Vasyukov matter-of-factly document a year in the life of the residents, whose year in-year out routines are all about self-preservation and resource conservation for the months that lock the town in a deep freeze.

Though many women and children live in the village, the filmmakers reserve most of the screen time for the menfolk, depicted in the midst of chores both necessary and rough: crafting paper-thin skis from huge chunks of wood; building new shelters insulated with moss and earth; grinding and sifting pine cones for edible nuts; setting up elaborate traps for the sables that bring in what little cash they earn.

The demands of the Siberian seasons look formidable to outsiders' eyes but those who thrive there do so with the earned results of blood, sweat and tears. Like any good documentary, viewers are led by the hand into this seemingly inhospitable world, one not fathomable to those outside such a small radius of experience. Yet thanks to the intimacy of the movie, we're made to feel so welcome.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga | 1:30 | Dir. Dmitry Vasyukov | Click here for theater show times.


Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.