Thursday, February 28, 2013
Some directors are able to breeze between feature films and documentaries, though, generally, each filmmaker is stronger in one medium than the other. Not so with the legendary Werner Herzog, who’s been churning out films of both type for decades.
Herzog’s take on a subject is always unique, because he usually brings a camera someplace very strange, like, say, Antarctica, Death Row or a French cave full of ancient paintings, and simply records what he sees, eventually cutting together an oddball view of a small part of the world. His films aren’t intended to be definitive, which is something that fans of his work often appreciate. And though they’re designed to spotlight something specific, Herzog’s documentaries are as much about his own experiences in a place as they are about trying to present an entire picture.
That’s what’s so odd about his latest endeavor, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, for which he shares a directing credit with Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov. The movie follows several hunters and trappers who are based in Bakhtia, a village of 300 people deep in the Siberian Taiga. In this case, Herzog didn’t travel to the village; Vasyukov and his crew spent a year there.
A barely inhabited part of Siberia is a brutal place; the villagers, who live similarly to how their ancestors did, have no electricity or doctors. They have very few trappings of modern life and make by hand almost everything they use. As I watched the men make a canoe, I couldn’t help but think that I could buy one in less time than it would take to watch the film. There are other disadvantages: There’s no Facebook, there are no craft cocktails – the only drink is locally made vodka, which Herzog calls as “vicious as jet fuel” in his commentary. No Genius Bar to turn to if someone has an issue with an iPhone. That’s OK, because there is no cell-phone coverage at all.
You get the idea. The Taiga is desolate, and these trappers, sporting beards that urban hipsters can only dream about, live harmoniously with the vast wilderness around them. Happy People has the feel of nature films you’d find on the Discovery or National Geographic channels, except that the creatures on display here are of the same species as the creatures watching the show.
Though they live simply, it’s not as if the folks in Happy People are by any definition simple. They’re smart, philosophical and insightful, and not one of them seems to have a fixed-gear bike.
The cinematography is gorgeous and the subjects are fascinating, but I felt Herzog’s physical absence from the film. True, he wrote and performed the narration, but the director is such a sly fox that usually, one of the most interesting facets of his films is the interactions he has with the people he meets.
While the trappers speak to the camera, we never see who they’re speaking to. In that way, it’s more of a traditional documentary, which is something we never expect from Werner Herzog.
HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA (3) Directed by Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov • Rated PG-13 • Not rated • In English and Russian with English subtitles • 90 min • At Osio Cinemas