Werner Herzog’s and Dmitry Vasyukov’s Happy People lovingly examines the lives, work, and circumstances of the people of a remote and isolated Siberian village. The community relies chiefly on trapping and fishing for its survival. In a sense the film isn’t much different from so many Alaska-based documentary-like reality programs currently available at the masculine section of the television dial. But it’s also notably different in a number of respects, and the differences are what make it worth watching and worth recommending.
The film appreciatively documents some of the remarkable skills possessed by these tough and self-reliant trappers. For example, constructing a new pair of skis — a key part of the trappers’ equipage — turns out to begin with a careful and knowing assessment of the tree to be used. Splitting the tree so that its wood fibers go undisturbed, planing the skis to the right thickness, and adding the curve to the tip are all shown and described in detail. For lack of a better word, there is a wisdom in the film and its main character that leaves one impressed and humbled. I was particularly struck, for example, by the main character’s ethical analysis of the differences between a farmer and a trapper with respect to the killing of animals. Herzog’s narration is laudably kept to a minimum.
The film makes no particular attempt at a balanced presentation of the pluses and minuses of this sort of backwoods, very cold, and difficult existence. Herzog’s thesis is that these are happy people, chiefly made so by their freedom and independence. The film is bent to the service of that thesis. No mishaps or tragedies or emergencies are offered. There is a brief reference to the alcoholism and lost culture and skill set of the Ket people, the local native culture. But their unhappy circumstances are noted only in passing and perhaps merely in juxtaposition with the happier lives of the Russian trappers. Yet, Herzog’s pro-happiness bias works. That same bias strengthens the film’s hand as a compelling commentary on the springs of human satisfaction and fulfillment.