Combustible Celluloid
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With: Werner Herzog (narrator)
Written by: Rudolph Herzog, Werner Herzog, Dmitry Vasyukov
Directed by: Werner Herzog, Dmitry Vasyukov
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: with English subtitles
Running Time: 94
Date: 25/01/2013

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Traps and Freedom

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog discovered four hours of footage about hunter/trappers in the remote Siberian Taiga region, he decided, with the blessing of the original director Dmitry Vasyukov, to edit his own, feature-length version, using his own narration. Using skills and tools passed down through the generations, the trappers prepare all year long for the frozen winter and the lonely job of catching enough game in the woods to survive. We witness as these amazing individuals make their own skis and build safe and secure shelters. Perhaps even more amazing are the hunting dogs, fierce, dedicated, and unbelievably brave.

Herzog's best assets, his foolhardy courage and nonjudgmental curiosity, usually make his documentaries great. But the major drawback of Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is that, because he wasn't actually there, he never personally interviews his subjects; they don't quite achieve the depth of personality that they might have in another Herzog movie. Moreover, none of these subjects are as dramatically interesting (or as exasperating) as Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Herzog's previous "inherited footage" documentary, Grizzly Man.

But Herzog more than makes up for these shortcomings with his tender, awestruck, view of his subjects, and his narration reflects these qualities as he tells their story. As he speaks, his admiration quickly rubs off on the viewer. The actual footage shot by Dmitry Vasyukov is striking and lovingly detailed, and certainly up to par with anything Herzog himself might have done. It's a fascinating, even touching, movie.

Music Box Films issued a nice new DVD. Extras listed on the box include an introduction by Herzog, a documentary, Chasing Spring in Serbia, a Serbia fact sheet, a trailer, and optional English, German, and Russian language tracks. I can't vouch for the transfer quality, and I did not get to check out any of the extras, since Music Box only sent me a preliminary check disc. The final product will be released April 23.

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