Each time some guy in the United States calls himself a hunter, he should be forced to watch Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. Does this guy fashion his own skis from wood he cut? Can he handle an ax as if it’s an extension of his arm? Can he ice fish with only a net?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, the guy is stripped of the title “Hunter.” He must spend a winter with Gennady Soloviev and Anatoly Blume, hunters in Happy People. If the guy survives the winter, he gets the title “Hunter” back. If there’s any karmic justice, humility will keep him from using it.
Gennady and Anatoly are real hunters. They hunt as a way of life. That they enjoy it—they’re happy people, after all—is simply a bonus.
This documentary by Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov follows inhabitants of the village of Bakhta in the Siberian taiga for a year. The only way in and out of the village is by helicopter or boat. Modern conveniences are limited to snowmobiles and chainsaws. Everything else is done now as it was hundreds of years ago.
There’s even an old man in the village whose sole job is to build canoes. By hand.
We join Gennady in the spring as he looks for wood to fashion skis. He’s done this task countless times; he moved to the taiga in 1970. Even the most physically fit man wouldn’t last more than 10 kilometers a day without skis, says Gennady. It’s hard to move when the snow is hip-deep.
Each spring the hunters make trips to their main hunting cabin and several outposts to prep for winter. They hide supplies 20 feet above ground so bears can’t get them. Supplies bears can’t smell are hung from the cabin ceilings so the mice don’t get them.
It’s hard work, and these guys love it, though it’s hard to read much emotion on their dispassionate faces.
One of the hunters says there’s nothing like sitting outside by the fire with a cup of tea at the end of a long day. Then we see him sitting by the fire, drinking tea, his dog at his side. He looks as happy as a Marlboro man from the early-1980s, without the fake modesty.
Winter is hardest. Imagine fixing your cabin after a tree has fallen through the roof. It’s 60 degrees below zero and the sun is setting fast. It happens to Anatoly.
In another life, Gennady may have been a movie star. His resemblance to Liam Neeson would get him cast in movies like Taken, and his natural stoicism would belie his killer instincts.
What puts Happy People over the top in excellence and, dare I say, mild silliness, is Herzog’s narration.
Anyone who sat through Jack Reacher will remember Herzog’s several monologues, all of which involve him talking about terrible things that happened to him in prison, such as eating his own fingers.
Now imagine that guy saying, “Mikael has his own unorthodox fishing technique,” as Mikael, standing in a canoe, blows away pike with a rifle. The several scenes of hunters struggling to tie up boats or move them through icy waters reminds one of Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, about a man hauling a boat over a mountain, and Les Blank’s documentary, Burden of Dreams, about Herzog’s struggles while making Fitzcarraldo.
Herzog doesn’t tell us, as in Dreams, that the sounds of the taiga are the sounds of murder. But we do get a horrific story, told by Gennady, about the day he lost his best dog in a bear attack.
Gennady kills the bear, then goes for help. After running 30 meters, he turns and realizes the dog has died. It’s a poignant moment amid the happiness: Nature can kill you whenever it chooses. And these guys choose this life.
HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA
Directed by Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov