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4.5 out of 5 stars
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4.5 out of 5 stars
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on 1 March 2017
What can I say? It's Herzog so it's going to be quality. Herzog lovers wouldn't bother with rating reviews, we instinctively know that it will be an outstanding piece of work.
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on 15 June 2017
Unapologetic,respectful, brilliant film making, which lets the subject matter speak for itself. If I could give it six stars I would.
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Lovely film.
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I’ve been a fan of the movies of Werner Herzog ever since the ‘70’s, when Atlanta’s only “art theater” would feature them. In particular, I was moved by his 1977 movie, Heart Of Glass [1976] [DVD], about the impact on a medieval German village when it lost the knowledge on how to make red glass. (I’ve frequently thought of the parallels with present-day America losing the knowledge and trained workforce that can make so many products). In the ‘70’s, Herzog was most famous for Aguirre, Wrath of God (DVD) [1972]. More recently, Herzog produced a documentary, Grizzly Man [2005] [DVD] on Timothy Treadwell, who was killed by the grizzly bears that he loved in Alaska. For “Happy People,” Herzog teamed up with Russian director, Nikolay Nikiforovitch Siniaev. It was released in 2013.

Bahkta is a village of 300 people, located on the Yenisei River in Siberia. The Yenisei is one of the three great rivers of Siberia; all flow to the Arctic Ocean. It is the middle one of the three; recently I read Jeffrey Tayler’s excellent account of his trip down the eastern-most of the three, the Lena, in his book River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny. There are no roads to Bahkta. Transportation to the village is solely by the Yenisei and by helicopter. (Google maps provides excellent detailed aerial views of the village!) The taiga, a Russian word now generally accepted in English, is the Siberian forest, which is one and a half times the size of the United States.

“Happy People” is a year in the life of Gennady Soloviev, who earns his livelihood in the traditional manner of a trapper, mainly of sable. He is somewhere between 50 and 60 years old, with an adult son to whom he is teaching traditional methods, including how to make a boat as well as skis from a tree that they cut down. Soloviev claims that he can outski others with store-bought synthetic-material skis. There “concessions” to the modern world are snowmobiles, chain saws and motors for their boats. Hand tools are used for most other work.

Soloviev looks like a dour Slav. Werner Herzog narrates the film, in English, and his intonations seem to capture Soloviev’s spirit. Soloviev says that he was dumped off in the taiga in the 1970’s, with no radio, no winter clothes, a partner who proved to be useless, and with a promise of a stove that was never delivered. He says simply: “I survived.” Herzog commences his year in the spring. May 01, besides its traditional holiday associations in Russia, marks the end of winter, as the ice on the Yenisei begins to break up. May 09 is also still celebrated, and Herzog, the German, poignantly films an old veteran, bedecked with medals, from “the Great Patriot War.” (a/k/a World War II), in which 20 million Russians died. Then there are the maddening clouds of mosquitoes during the summer, as work moves forward to prepare for the autumn trapping season. Birch bark tar is used as a mosquito repellant.

Soloviev traps alone. He has a base cabin, and outlying cabins that have to be stocked for the season. All must be in place before the freeze. His territory is 1500 square kilometers. His son also traps, but in his own territory. He drives his snowmobile down the frozen Yenisei, a 150 km, to be at home for Christmas. His dog must run beside him. He loves his dogs (a trapper has to have them!) but will not spoil them. The last day of December was “mild,” at a minus 33.

Happy people? Throughout the movie, rare is even a smile. Women are in the deep background, their lives unexamined. As Herzog explains though, late in the movie, Soloviev pays no taxes, has no bosses to please, and is free of committee meetings. He is self-reliant, in an extreme world, where there is no margin for error. He is his own man. How many of us can say the same? Unmentioned in the film are the very upscale stores that sell sable coats with $90,000 price tags; so too, unmentioned are the models who “go bare” rather than wear fur. Yet another world.

Herzog was 70 years old when he produced this movie in 2013. His creative powers are certainly undiminished over the past almost half century. The cinematography is brilliant, and includes numerous underwater and aerial shots. And the storyline is just about perfect, with the enormity of the solitude of the taiga playing a key supportive role. 6-stars.
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One of the awe-inspiring aspects of some of Werner Herzog's documentaries is the length he'll go to do get to the heart of the film's subjects - here he (or the Russian director?) visits a remote part of Siberia: inaccessible by road, the only way to get there is by helicopter or by boat. If you go by boat, you are restricted by the seasonal weather, for during the winter months the river access is frozen.

It's easy to see why being 'sent to Siberia' was used as a punishment by the Russians; here in the village of Bakhatia, 300 people eke out their lives in tremendously hard conditions - we accompany one of the locals, a hunter, as he makes his annual hike into the wilderness to set traps, maintain his huts, feed his dogs - and most importantly, earn money!

His skills in building traditional traps are breathtaking, his hardiness extraordinary - he works with his dog in temperatures of -35 degrees and lower, trapping sable and ermine.

The film takes place over the course of one year - at the start we see him prepare for the journey ahead - he makes his own skis, and there is one craftsman left who knows the traditional method of boat-building: alcohol has had a huge impact here, and many of the inhabitants aren't as happy as the film would suggest. Tellingly, the hunter was given the tools of his trade and moved there by Soviet Russians - the Asian-looking locals look kind of dispossessed.

One niggle is the slightly cheesy Russian-accented translator on the voice-over, but on the whole this humbling film is a record of a lifestyle that has remained the same - with the addition of petrol vehicles - for god know how long; it was a surprise to me that it was filmed recently, as I thought it was from the 1970s when I saw it. It avoids romanticising their tough existence, but keeps an awareness of the love that the hunter has for his life, his family and his most important companion, his dog.

I was amazed to see that the dog runs by the side of the hunter's snowbike for the whole 150 kilometer journey back home without a rest - the film is magical.
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on 23 February 2015
Before you watch this, click on the Special Features and listen to Werner Herzog's introduction of the movie at a New York event -- He makes it clear that none of the actual filming was done by him. Rather it was the work of Dmitry Vasyukov, who produced four 1-hour films about life in the Siberian taiga, on the Yenisei River. With Vasyukov's permission and encouragement -- and the remarkably free hand that Vasyukov gave him -- Herzog edited the material down to approximately 90 minutes that is what you have on this DVD. Herzog also created the commentary and had the music re-done. He is quite open about the fact that he has never been to Bakhta, the village in the taiga, and that he has never met Vasyukov, although he has skyped with him. Obviously too, Herzog fell in love with the dogs . . . and so will you if you see this movie.

Happy people, because they are free, living by the "rules" that nature dictates in these very unforgiving conditions. Herzog clearly sees them -- and it seems Vasyukov did too -- as moral examples. All their lives are lived forward, as it were, preparing in one season for what will be required of them in the next. This is a life they cheerfully accept and understand that to many people it will seem deprived and harsh beyond endurance. But they have a sense of nature as an environment in which they can thrive and which has called forth skills and qualities that have been lost perhaps in a "consumer" society. The structure, as Herzog has shaped it, is around the seasons and their particular tasks. The story, such as it is, focuses on the ten or so trappers in the village -- they are the ones who spend the winter out in the woods trapping sable and catching fish. To say that they are resourceful is to understate the point, and while their work involves killing, it's hardly on a huge scale, and one of the trappers talks about how much better it is than farming -- he could hardly bring himself to shoot his livestock when he was a farmer. Out in the taiga, the animals have a chance, and if they die, he says, they die quickly and humanely. And then there are the dogs. There's discussion of what makes a good dog, but it seems that even less good dogs, as well as old dogs, stay in the village and are well treated. The ones that go into the taiga are something special . . . And, as you might expect, the footage of the natural environment, in all seasons, is often spectacular, and these are the images we and Herzog owe to Vasyukov and his crew. Herzog is obviously drawn to extreme conditions and situations that test people. Here, there's no extreme of weirdness, as in "Grizzly Man," but the situation is extreme by our standards, and yet these people have lives that can make sense to us. Highly recommended.
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I read one luke warm review about this documentary that felt Werner Herzog was simply on auto pilot. Well all I can say to that is that Werner Herzog on auto pilot is still far better than most directors at their very peak. Werner Herzog in fact cherry picked what he felt to be the best of Dmitry Vasyukov's 4 hour TV documentary and condensed it down to 90 minutes, so any criticism might also be directed at Vasyukov. In his last fine documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams", Herzog was left to ponder just what the Paleoloithic hunters of our distant past were like. It is as if in this film he answers the question for himself. He describes one hunter whilst ploughing a lonely furrow through the snow as being remarkably like an ice age hunter, and in that he was dead right. With few concessions to the modern world little has changed for these hunters on the wild Siberian Taiga. The woolly mammoths may have thinned down a bit, but there are still bear and moose aplenty.

The film follows the vastly changing seasons in Bakhtia a small Siberian settlement on the huge Yenisei river, and especially one veteran hunter called Gennady and his devoted dog. Gennady has a snowmobile and modern guns, but little else that has changed in hundreds of years. He uses the same hunting methods that have been in use for centuries. With his essental tool the axe, he is able to construct his own huts and make his own traps for the valuable Sable. He catches the fish that team in the rivers and traverses difficult terrain using the beautiful wooden skis that he has made himself. He is in short the romanticised epitomy of self sustainability. Gennady eulogises on the hunters codes of conduct in the way that the old trapper did in Akira Kurosawa's beautiful hymn to nature "Dersu Uzala", also magically set in the Taiga. Aside from the few modern trappings Gennady bears a close resemblence to the mountain man character played by Robert Redford in "Jeremiah Johnson", set in early 19th century America. In truth the trappers life is a hard and lonely one only suited to a few resiliant individuals. The rigours of working in temperatures that regularly drop to -50 are less romantic to think of.

This is a stunningly beautiful documentary filmed in its entirety in the unspoilt majesty of the Taiga, one of the worlds truly pristine wilderness areas. Vasyukov and his team must really have suffered for their art whilst filming in such harsh conditions, but it was worth it for the stunning images brought back. Herzog has co-written a decent dialogue and provided his very Boris Becker like narration, which despite being strongly German I do rather like. I still can't forgive them for those penalty shoot outs you know! The additional American voiceovers were not so good, but can be forgiven. This documentary provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the hunters, and gives real meaning to the word solitude. There are no extras with this DVD. I loved this film and my only regret is that I would like to be able to see Vasyukov's full four hour documentary. It would be great if someone could make it available, but I doubt that will happen any time soon!
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on 11 April 2012
I LOVED this DVD Documentary which takes the viewer to spend a year in a remote Siberian Taiga community of 300 hardy souls and where many of the menfolk from the village featured exist by hunting and trapping. Something about this film, apart from the remoteness of location, reminded me of Kurosawa's DERSU UZALA, a favourite film of mine and one not easily forgotten. Whereas "Dersu" was a feature film based on the true story of a Russian Surveyor and his interaction with an old hunter, HAPPY PEOPLE relies on it's purely documentary style and as with many of his feature films and other documentary work Werner Herzog and his compatriots must have suffered for their art in this production.
We are indeed fortunate to have film makers of this calibre and talent and who can transport us to regions most of us neither have the skills to survive in or would otherwise never visit being too dangerous or uncomfortable. This is -50C territory where one false slip or misjudgement can mean a cold and solitary death.
At one stage the trapper arrives at his overnight cabin after a long day on the trap line to find a tree down across the roof. He has no other alternative than to clear the tree with his axe and then fix his woodstove chimney and light a fire. Without that, the prospect of a cold night with poor shelter looms. However, no drama is made of this and similar events, the practical self reliance of those villagers featured leaves you in awe of what they can achieve with little technology other than old tried and tested skills. Yet they are happy, amazingly so it seems, with so little and in such precarious circumstances. One of my favourite scenes is of the village against a backdrop of the river with "ice out" in progress....glitteringly brilliant!! The cover of the DVD says "Mesmerising" and while not disagreeing with that statement, I would say "Enthralling" better describes this film. It's a "must see" and will surely become a classic!
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on 11 January 2015
Interesting documentary on the lives of trappers and hunters in deep Siberia, along the banks of the river Yenisei, during the four seasons of the year. For instance, in summer, we see them fishing and collecting nuts and berries. In autumn, we see them preparing traps, collecting and splitting wood and hoarding food as they prepare for the winter, where the weather can be as low as -50 degrees centigrade. They have a hermit, mostly self reliant life style, living in log cabins deep in the forest accompanied only by their dogs, with minimal contact with other people. They also seem to be exclusively male. They have some modern technology at their disposal, though they also live and hunt with traditional instruments. Despite the title, they do not seem particularly happy, they look more like taciturn, silent and reserved, able to make a living with very little. The documentary also had a detour seeing the native, shamanistic, Vodka-ravaged Ket people fishing and building their boats (an interesting fact, not mentioned in the movie, is that the Ket people are believed by anthropologists and geneticists to be the closest ancestors of native Americans).

Note: This has been widely credited as a Werner Herzog film, but all the German director did was edit an original Russian TV miniseries directed by Dmitri Vasyukov (he filmed them year round) that lasted four hours into 90 minutes for international release. Herzog also provides narration in his trademark German accented English, accompanied sometimes by his ponderous philosophizing.
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on 20 October 2013
The film is certainly a beautifully-photographed documentary, but I wanted to know more about the indigenous folk who had lived in this part of Siberia for centuries. I had hoped to see more of their traditional way of life. In this film they are barely glimpsed and they seem to have fallen very low, drunk and impoverished and confused about whether this is their fault. The Russians who have managed to make a modest living in their lands were of much less interest to me. These are the "Happy" people. The few tribes folk we met were pretty miserable.
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