Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
By Jeffrey Anderson,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Fascinating Herzog documentary about Siberian trappers.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
It's important to have and live by strong personal values. If you benefit from nature, you should also respect it. Traditional skills can be passed down through generations and should be maintained. Perseverance is key to survival in tough conditions.
Positive Role Models
The hunter-trappers have learned a purity of existence, relying on skill, experience, and perseverance to survive the raw, wintry conditions of the Taiga. They're happy to live by their own values, without outside rules. Though they trap animals, the subjects show respect for nature and loving kindness toward their hunting dogs. They only kill what they will eat/use and look down on other trappers who show greed.
The main subjects are the Russian trappers, with the indigenous Ket villagers featured in brief scenes and interviews. They are shown to maintain centuries-old traditions with great skill, but also to have been pushed down the social hierarchy, and in some cases turned to alcoholism. The Russian trappers are all men, and the villagers demonstrate traditional gender roles, with men hunting and gathering while women cook and take care of the home. A woman over 50 maintains the tradition of crafting dolls; she doesn't speak on camera, but her work is described in voiceover. Women don't get much screen time, and their roles within this society aren't explored.
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Violence & Scariness
A few sequences of animals being caught and/or trapped. A dog chases a smaller animal and fights with it, and a hunter removes dead, frozen animals from traps. Guns are occasionally shown and fired -- at one point killing a bird. Hunters stab at fish and shoot them underwater; they're later gutted, and animals are skinned on camera. A subject remembers an incident of a bear killing a dog, going into detail about its torn stomach and bowels hanging out. Little to no blood shown. A person slips from a roof into a snow drift but is unharmed. Mention of loss of life in WWII, and a character becomes tearful while speaking of their experience in the war. A house is shown on fire and burns down.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
A married couple kisses on the lips.
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Language occasionally includes "hell." "Bitch" is used a few times in reference to female dogs.
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Products & Purchases
A child wears a Pokémon T-shirt.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Reference to many villagers struggling with alcoholism. One person appears to be drunk on camera -- though they're not a main subject of the film. People drink vodka on a number of occasions, described as "jet fuel." Subjects smoke cigarettes.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Happy People: A Year in the Taiga -- a documentary assembled (though not filmed) by German director Werner Herzog -- captures a year in the life of the hunter-trappers who live and work in the wilderness region around Siberia. Dialogue is in Russian, with English voiceover and subtitles for U.S. release. The trappers demonstrate perseverance, great skill and knowledge, and moments of humor and empathy during the film. There's hunting-related violence, with guns/shooting, animal traps, and animals harmed and/or killed. In one sequence, a dog chases and throws a small animal around to kill it. The movie briefly discusses the fact that many of the residents of this area struggle with alcoholism; subjects drink and smoke cigarettes. The word "hell" is used, and "bitch" is spoken a few times in reference to female dogs. The "happy people" in the film's title refer to male trappers, while women aren't given much screen time. Overall, the film is fascinating, informative, and sometimes touching, even showing what life might be like without media and devices.
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Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
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What's the Story?
In HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA, acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog has taken footage filmed by director Dmitry Vasyukov of hunter-trappers in the remote Siberian Taiga region and edited his own feature-length version, using his own narration. With skills and tools passed down through generations, the trappers at the center of the documentary prepare all year long for the frozen winter and the lonely, dangerous job of catching enough game in the woods to survive.
Is It Any Good?
This is a fascinating, even touching, movie. Herzog's best assets -- his courage and non-judgmental curiosity – make his documentaries renowned for standing out from the crowd, and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is no different. The slight drawback here is that, because Herzog wasn't actually there when the footage was filmed, he never personally interviewed his subjects. Consequently, they don't quite achieve the depth of personality seen in some of the director's other films. And none of the subjects is as dramatically interesting (or as exasperating) as Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Herzog's previous "inherited footage" documentary, Grizzly Man. But they make for natural, intriguing, and often likable characters. Herzog's tender, awestruck view of his subjects helps tell their story with care and respect -- as he speaks, his admiration quickly rubs off on viewers. The original footage shot by Vasyukov is striking, lovingly detailed, and certainly feels up to par with anything Herzog himself might have done alone, the shifting landscapes brought to epic life alongside the intimate, very personal stories.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about how hunting is portrayed in Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. How violent is this act, as depicted in the movie? What's the difference between hunting for sport and hunting for survival?
How does Happy People address drinking? Which members of society appear to drink more than others? What do you think might cause people in this region and lifestyle to start drinking?
If you don't live in this area, how might your life be different if you did? What would you miss about your life? And if you do relate to the people on-screen, how do you think that living in a bustling city or suburban area would feel different?
The hunters show great perseverance. Why is this an important character strength -- particularly in this environment? Can you think of a time when you've shown perseverance in your own life?
The main focus of the film is the role of men in the community, while women's roles are widely overlooked. How do you feel about documentaries focusing on one group over another? Do you think there is a responsibility to show wider representation? Can you think of other documentaries that do this, and how do they compare?
- In theaters: January 25, 2013
- On DVD or streaming: April 23, 2013
- Cast: Werner Herzog
- Directors: Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner Herzog
- Studio: Music Box Films
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: Science and Nature, Wild Animals
- Character Strengths: Perseverance
- Run time: 94 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: June 2, 2023
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