'Year in the Taiga' riveting

LIZ BRAUN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:20 PM ET

A year in the wilderness with Werner Herzog as a guide is a unique film experience.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is a documentary about the trappers of a Siberian village, intrepid folk who live in a particular relationship with their environment. Their snowmobiles are among their few concessions to modern life.

The film is also an homage to their working dogs.

The men of Bakhtia hunt with traps and methods that have not changed for hundreds of years. The film covers the four seasons of a typical year in their tiny village, a settlement of about 300 people surrounded by the massive Siberian wilderness. Bakhtia is accessible only by helicopter or boat and only for a certain part of the year; once winter arrives, all bets are off.

The movie focuses on the trappers and their unusually isolated and complex working lives. All the tools of their trade are made by hand: Simple, clever animal traps; perfect short skis created annually out of carefully chosen wood, built to carry a man over knee-deep moss or knee-deep snow, depending upon the season; canoes carved according to ancient tradition and small hunting lodges set up far from home.

The storing of firewood and food for the winter is carried out over the other three seasons. One man works the land given him during communist times, when he trapped for the state. He's been in his area of 1,500 square kilometers since the 1970s.

The enemies of these people? Weather. Bears. Vodka. Greed -- those hunters who trap pregnant or immature animals.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, started life as a four-hour Russian TV special, and Herzog has distilled it into this documentary feature that offers tips on such skills as smoking fish, making insect repellent from bark and teaching pups to grow up to be good hunting dogs.

A fascinating study of a people who use ancient tools to survive unthinkable winters in a daunting landscape, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is a study of a populace filmmaker Herzog calls, "Truly free."

It is, as usual, Herzog's enthusiasm and intense interest in his subject matter that transforms the picture from high school sociology film to riveting feature. He praises these people who celebrate, "The beauty of the space, the cold and the silence." That's what the movie does, too.

The award-winning Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is in Russian, with English voice-over from Herzog and others.


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