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For any first-world inhabitant complaining about working on weekends, office morale, or especially about cold weather in the winter, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is sure to put things in perspective. From spring, to summer, to autumn, to winter, Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov paint a stark picture of what life is like in a remote village of Siberia, where humanity still fends for itself, without the help of modern-day comforts or technology. And while “Happy People” might be a misleading title – the featured characters in the documentary found enjoyment in some things, but were plenty miserable at times, too – they do seem to take pride in their way of life.

With a pleasant, Christoph Waltz-like German accent, Herzog narrates a fairly compelling tale of life and struggle among fur-trappers, who are forced to live with a certain regularity to stay alive. They need to craft skis at an exact time of year. They need to make canoes. They must cross the river Yenisei at precise times of frozen and high tides. They require strategies to fend off bears and train their dogs. They don’t get two weeks vacation, though they do celebrate holidays – when they can. And they do it mostly without complaint. There’s a lesson in this for all of us.

At the same time, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to keep up this lifestyle. Is it heroic to brave such unfriendly winters, constantly laboring and at risk of early death? If these “villagers” were all transported to Jamaica, might they have a better time fishing and basking in the sun? These are questions Herzog and company do not provide answers for, perhaps out of respect for the naturalness of their material. Still, I would have preferred if those questions were asked a bit more.

Werner Herzog really takes to the stark wilderness.

Werner Herzog really takes to the stark wilderness.

Also, while the documentary certainly provides an interesting foray into another world, it seems to present that world as being more remote than it is. Yes, you can only travel to the village of Bakhtia by boat or helicopter, but the fur-trappers still use chainsaws, receive occasional visits from politicians, and are in touch – to some extent – with other parts of Russia and Siberia. This is not Skull Island or the Aboriginal tale Ten Canoes, where indigenous people are completely untouched and unblemished by the modern world. Pretending that’s the case is just false advertisement.

They also tend to focus too much on one fur-trapper (perhaps he was the only one who would really cooperate), which was very revealing, but failed to provide a bigger sample size. This particular character was not even a native to the region, having moved up there on account of the government in 1970. What about the people whose ancestors have lived there for hundreds of years? There wasn’t enough shown about them.

Overall, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is still an extraordinary work, filmed in brutal conditions, painstakingly over the course of a year. For their efforts in providing new material in bitter circumstances, they deserve lots of credit. Ultimately, it’s a worthy effort that doesn’t quite cross the frozen river to greatness.