Werner Herzog returns with another profile of an outlier living on the fringe. Happy People follows a grizzled professional hunter based in the small frontier village of Bakhta, deep in the heart of Russia’s vast and forbidding Siberian hinterland. Every fall, he sets out on a solitary trapping expedition that lasts through the winter, a grueling test against the elements with no hope of help if anything goes awry (cell phones, we learn, haven’t yet penetrated the taiga). Using footage repurposed from a four-hour documentary that originally aired on Russian television directed by Dmitry Vasyukov, Herzog overlays this character study with incisive voiceover commentary studded with his gimlet-eyed wit and wide-eyed amazement.
Veteran hunter Gennady Soloviev, a seen-it-all type with three decades of trapping under his belt, is a no-nonsense yet kindly guide to the extreme wilds of Siberia. He initiates us into the ins and outs of his trade and living in the unforgiving subarctic at 50 below. In quiet moments he shares his reflections, lambasting trappers who prey on pregnant sables or musing on the meaning he finds in nature. Gennady is not entirely alone on his sojourn, though: he is accompanied by his faithful, charming hunting dog. The two are inseparable partners over the long lonesome months of winter, their mutual affection on constant display, and theirs is the central friendship of the film.
Age-old craft techniques are vital to the dwindling Siberian hunting trade, and Happy People presents these with attention to detail, as though preserving them for posterity: building skis from forest wood, creating elaborate traps, pike fishing and cabin construction. A member of the native Ket people assists the hunters by building hollowed-out canoes from scratch. It is an awe-inspiring feat, though the tribe is shown to be in decline. While celebrating the rugged individuality of the hunters and the Ket, Happy People also probes the fallout from Siberia’s inclusion in Russia’s socioeconomic program, sketching the loss of artisanal skills and cultural forms as traditional communities and trades are snuffed out by broader globalizing forces.
Visually, the film captures the natural splendors of the stark landscape: low-slung canoes gliding over still waters, pristine evergreen forests heavy with snowpack, underwater shots of large squirming pike, ice floes drifting down the Yenisei. It’s a shame then, that the digital photography introduces blurs and jags in some scenes, instead of the crisp high resolution these images deserve. Herzog inherited this footage, though, which he has recut and whittled down to a tight hour-and-a-half. In addition to providing English subtitles for the Russian dialogue, Herzog rewrote and narrated the voiceover commentary, bathing the hunters in a mythic glow. The new soundtrack, an expansive and romantic orchestral score, adds to the epic scope of the film.
Herzog presents taiga trappers like Gennady with a respect that verges on veneration. They are happy people not despite their grueling months-long hunt, but because of it.