Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

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Ron Swanson’s Favorite Film?

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Review written by Robert D. Patrick

Werner Herzog, the enigmatic, sleepy-voiced German director has become a sort of lick-the-thumb and turn-the-page storyteller. He is a grandfather figure that has both acerbic wit and calm reticence. Most recently, the auteur has been adorning his lens with pastoral landscapes and philosophical documentaries about the human condition. Here, with Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, he tells a story about a community of trappers and craftsmen in Siberia, who, under great physical duress, manage to carve out a life for themselves using a bushel of archaic tools and a volley of old world wisdom.

We are invited to see rural, cracking landscapes of unspoiled nature. From endless amounts of paw specked snow to rock inundated rivers, Herzog’s camera perforates a world that most of us assume, from the technological universe we embed ourselves in, could only exist in the weathered, frayed pages of the past. Early in the film we are introduced to one man who, for the past forty years, has lived off the land with a pack of old, long in the tooth dogs, that slice and crunch through snowy fields in hunt of resources. The man is dolloped with a large, furry cap that almost gives the illusion that he sports the mane of a weary, old lion. His long, drawn face a portrait of the ever-shifting elements in the Taiga. Herzog enables us to take a knee and listen to these men describe everything from the appropriate way to cut a tree without destroying the fibers to the proper way to conserve natural resources.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga sounds like an inert, contemplative, still art portrait of nature and man, but, in actuality, it’s a fluid experience that is both buoyant and entertaining. Herzog has an intangible way of taking a subject – any subject – and making the viewer feel engrossed in the material. In the director’s newest opus, the chipping of wood is almost a rhythmic hymn to the history of mankind. A black mash of tar and a few arcane tools numb the hands of tireless craftsmen as they construct everything from canoes to homes. As you watch the seasons change in the documentary, your mind becomes severed from the posh, conformity of comfort as you embed yourselves within the walls of something greater, grander.

Herzog’s aesthetically memorizing ode to the dying craftsman is a unique, necessary documentary in the face of a spittoon that has been filled with egregious amounts of technology and modern impassivity. The once venerable – even spiritual – dichotomy of fear and calm that a person can endure, through the chill of the elements, is now, sadly, something that most people forget exists. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is a moving film that everyone, despite their initial inclinations, has to see.

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Author: Rob Patrick

A member of the San Diego Film Critics Society, Rob created Cinema Spartan after he stepped down as the editor of a weekly. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. He has also introduced films with the Pacific Arts Movement. He co-owns two dire wolves, Buckley and Ruffin. At any given time, he can tell you superfluous hockey statistics. He is the chancellor of Tapatio, an advocate of iced tea, and an owner of at least 70 pairs of Vans.

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