By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
If it weren’t already clear that the seasonal duties of the natives in Siberia — as we watch them go about their customs — were life and death issues, surely the heavy voice of the inimitable Werner Herzog would do the trick.
“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” is the latest documentary to fire Herzog’s wide-ranging imagination. This time the director of “Grizzly Man” and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” peers into the world of the Taiga, an incredibly isolated foresty area in the middle of Siberia.
The Taiga is on the Arctic Circle. The movie’s structured by the four seasons, beginning in winter and ending there again, because life here is determined by the depth of snow on the ground, the amount of sunlight, the available animals for trapping, just as life has been determined for a thousand years here.
Herzog didn’t go to this forbidding place himself, although his globetrotting in the past has been impressive. This time he took footage from a TV series by director Dmitry Yasyukov (credited as co-director here), edited it down and applied his voiceover narration.
You can see the appeal: The movie has remarkable footage of remarkable people, especially the trappers who roam across their sector of snow-covered forest every winter, using techniques developed centuries ago. They also use snowmobiles, which were not developed centuries ago.
Even the summer, with its 20 hours of sunlight, isn’t entirely easy: The mosquitoes come out and cover man and dog alike. Rendering a tar made from birch bark gives some respite from the biting.
We also see canoe-making and ice-fishing and lots of useful survival tips, all well suited to a Discovery Channel special. That’s not a putdown; this is genuinely absorbing material, in a location unfamiliar to most of us.
Herzog’s interest in this material jibes with his customary obsession with extremes, and he also focuses on the possibility that the people in the Taiga might be happier in their difficult but free existence.
“There is nothing like warming yourself and making a cup of tea to make you happy,” says one hunter in his isolation. “That is like nothing else.”
At times you can feel Herzog straining to make this second-hand material his own, and you suspect he might have gotten more unusual responses if he’d been the interviewer of these onscreen subjects.
So “Happy People” isn’t a Herzog classic. It is a glimpse into a different world, which makes it hard to turn away from once you’ve started watching it, as any watcher of the Discovery Channel knows.
“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” (3 stars)
Werner Herzog narrates a look at the people of the Taiga region in Siberia, an incredibly remote place where customs haven’t changed much in centuries. It’s not another “Grizzly Man,” but the portrait of people in extreme conditions is absorbing. In Russian and English, with English subtitles.
Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter.
Showing: SIFF Cinema Uptown.