Now on DVD: HAPPY PEOPLE - A YEAR IN THE TAIGA Shows What Werner Herzog Can Do

Peter Martin, Managing Editor

Werner Herzog sharing a director credit with Dmitry Vasyukov? That immediately raises the question: who did what?

Our own Jim Tudor saw Happy People - A Year in the Taiga during its U.S. theatrical run earlier this year. He began his review by recapping the inherent appeal of the material:

A snowmobile struggles over one frozen bump then another, his trusty dog keeping pace alongside without a problem. For as far as the eye can see, the terrain is snowcapped, wild, yet tranquil. The scraggly driver is a Russian trapper - a survivalist of the purest order, hailing from an existence devoid of electronic connectivity and indoor climate control. As the film points out, his snowmobile and his chainsaw are among the only modern conveniences he and others like his opt to use. Later, a trapper will make an epic 150 km dash back home in utter darkness, his dog forced to keep up on foot amid the vehicle's spitting snow kick-back.

As to the directing credit, Jim noted that Herzog "co-directed with newcomer Dmitry Vasyukov (who is admittedly shortchanged here and elsewhere in terms of directorial credit, as he's an unknown in the shadow of his famous partner)." Commenter "harumph" added:

Vasyukov actually directed all of the footage. Herzog edited together Happy People from Vasyukov's already completed four-hour tv documentary on the region. Although the subtitle of the film is "A Year in the Taiga," Herzog never actually set foot in those woods. He condensed Vasyukov's doc with help from his son and another editor, and then he added his own narration.

The DVD includes Herzog's introduction when Happy People screened at the DOC NY festival, in which Herzog explains how he came to see the original documentary series, got excited by it, and offered his services to Vasyukov -- but only if Herzog could have complete creative control over the editing, narration, and music.

Very helpfully, the DVD also includes a 7-minute excerpt from Vasyukov's original work. The footage itself is fascinating, but the treatment makes it look like a run-of-the-mill, made-for-TV nature program. It's fine on its own merits, but Herzog's version is demonstrably more intriguing and compelling. He shapes the material, reflecting his own obsessions, and making good use of the amazing footage shot by Vasyukov and his team. Vasyukov and his team deserve full credit for the year they spent in the remote wilderness, as well as their efforts in cutting the material down to four hours.

With that as a foundation, Herzog was then free to show what he can do. It's still very much a shared project; don't expect to see any interviews interrupted by Herzog, as he did in Encounters at the End of the World, for example, or ruminations on the sad plight of a depressed penguin. Without visiting the region, or even meeting Vasyukov in person, though, Herzog crafted a film that travels well and appears to honor the spirit of the original.

Other supplemental material on the DVD includes Valeri Krylov's 73-minute documentary Chasing Spring in West Siberia, which showcases the landscapes and animals of that region; "Siberia Facts," multiple screens of data on Siberia; and the theatrical trailer for Happy People.

Again referring to Jim Tudor's review, he concluded:

Herzog and Vasyukov manage to obey that old adage of show don't tell, and in so, tell of a primitive depth, intelligence and contentment so lost on so many, yet so vibrant in others. Those few, they say, are the happy ones.

I certainly agree with Jim's sentiments. This version of Happy People is a good film that offers a peak into the life of people who are glad to live rough in harmony with nature, free of the comforts, but also the restrictions and regulations, of modern life elsewhere in the world. The DVD adds very good supplemental material that provides context for what each filmmaker contributed to the project.

Happy People has been made available on Region 1 DVD by Music Box Films, and can be found via a variety of retailers. It can be ordered through our affiliate link at Amazon.com right here.

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