Before tackling 3D with his critically acclaimed documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams and helming the forthcoming death row expose Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog executive produced and narrated Dimitry Vasyukov's Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, due to be released on DVD in the UK on the 28th of November. Vasyukov's simple yet hugely illuminating examination of a year in the life of a small Siberian village and its inhabitants, reachable only by helicopter, takes in the very Herzogian themes of man versus nature, isolation, the cycle of life and self-sufficient outsider communities. Focusing on the village's Sable trappers (a dwindling and increasingly economically fraught way of life), Herzog guides us through the seasons, beginning with Spring and ending in Winter, as the menfolk continue the centuries old tradition that takes them away from their friends and families for the duration of the hunting season.
The sheer physical vastness of the Taiga, stunningly captured in all of its seasonal glories, and the rustic lifestyle of the villagers dominates the film, slightly spoiled by the villagers voices being overlaid by irritating, drone-like American translators, to provide an insight into this largely unseen community. Living off the land and beholden to the seasonal changes, these hardy villagers survive with only the barest of modern accoutrements to assist them with their daily chores. Boats and traps are made by hand, the diet of the villagers largely consists of bread, potatoes and fish and, as is repeated by all of the hunters, a good hunting dog is essential to survival in such an inhospitable environment. Sharing similar thematic concerns as Herzog's own Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, Happy People is a fascinating glimpse into a world far removed from our own. It may not quite reach the operatic, abyss staring heights of many of Herzog's non-fiction films but nonetheless it leaves the viewer in awe of the landscape, its inhabitants and their deeply ingrained, symbiotic relationship.