DVD Happy People
Not in any way near related to the R. Kelly song of the same name, Happy People centres on the lives of three hundred villagers living in remotest Siberia. Without the aid of modern technology, like mobile phones, medical aid or even any roads, these people manage to carve out an enviable lifestyle by living harmoniously with nature. Werner Herzog narrates this tranquil piece that is also the first feature effort by Dmitry Vasyukov.
Opening in the Russian spring, Happy People introduces us to a number of hunters, known as trappers, who are beginning to prepare for their annual hunt. They live in the small village of Bakhta, a place so remote that they do not even have access to running water.
These trappers take nine months to ready themselves for a solitary hunt that lasts for the whole of the formidable winter. They set thousands of traps, build their own keeps, and stock up on all the natural materials available to them in order to have a successful hunt. Survival tips have been passed down for generations, with the designs of some traps lasting unaltered for hundreds of years.
As the trappers prepare for their hunt, we get glimpses of their local community. We learn how a small group of people manage to stay enviably content in such hostile surroundings, and we also learn what happens to a less fortunate community that forgets its traditional background…
A quiet and slow pace gently rolls the film along. The sounds most often heard among the grand snow-scapes and magnificent pine forests are the chopping of wood, the trickle of streams and the mumbles of burly Russian men as they explain their survivalist techniques. This approach suits the unimposing lives of the people of Bakhta as they simply get on with the job of living.
Being a Herzog project, Happy People focuses heavily on the interactions between man and nature. However, unlike some of his previous work, it does not show any sort of contention between the two forces. It instead shows us what happens when the balance is just right. The people of Bakhta take what they need from the land and no more. They are happy for this. They don’t have mobile phones or the internet or roads because, well, they simply don’t need them. It’s a life of delightful and fulfilling simplicity.
The filmmakers are quick to remind the audience that nature, when given the opportunity, is still a very dangerous force.
Herzog and Vasyukov are very careful in their objectivity of the subject matter. No endorsement of any way of life is relentlessly pushed on the viewer. Rather, the camera tends to observe in long shots or in long takes. Any feelings of wonder or awe as the trappers work in perfect harmony with the environment are not the result of manipulation by the filmmakers, but rather emotional projections made by the audience on the film itself. This film is genius in that it allows viewers to imprint their own emotions on top of the images provided.
Despite this careful attitude to emotional manipulation, there are times when the film is deliberately moving. Poignant insights are gained into the bond trappers have with their trusted packs of dogs, even if the basic subject matter remains tried and tested material. Another particularly moving point is made when the film focuses on a group of people who have forgotten their cultural history and turned to alcohol instead. It does not try to make any large-scale social commentary, but simply displays the tragedy of a thousand-year old people almost wiped out in a matter of decades.
Not everything in the film is harmonious. The filmmakers are quick to remind the audience that nature, when given the opportunity, is still a very dangerous force. This is displayed when a dog, while observing its master cut down a tree, spots a rodent of some kind and ruthlessly, mercilessly, tears it apart as the tiny creature fights for its home. Even though this is a minor battle on a small scale, it is a stark reminder that this conflict underpins everything the trappers do. They are not here to live in comfort; they are here to survive at all costs.
If any flaw is to be found with this Happy People, it lies in the dubbing of dialogue. It’s regrettable that it should come down to this, but the voiceovers are terrible. They are completely contradictory to the meditative tones carefully made by Herzog and Vasyukov, and they ruin any sort of authenticity coming from the trapper’s mouths. It’s a shame that the majestic scenery and poignant themes are ruined by American voices guffawing across acres of landscape.
Captivating, mesmerising and entrancing; Happy People is all of these things and more. It is non-judgemental in its approach of the trapper’s way of life, and also in its comments of our own. There are great moments of humour as well as moments of resounding humanity. It’s a very pleasant experience, as well as an enlightening one. It’s a very optimistic film. It’s a happy film.
See The Film For Yourself!
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