Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga Movie Poster Image
Fascinating Herzog documentary about Siberian trappers.
  • NR
  • 2013
  • 94 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Some viewers may see the hunter-trappers as old-fashioned or out of touch, but there's something beautiful about the way that their methods have been passed down through the generations and the way that they live without media in the wilderness, focused mainly on survival and the task at hand. There are a couple of brief scenes of young people being taught these age-old skills for future reference.

Positive Role Models & Representations

No one subject stands out here as a role model, but the hunter-trappers have learned a purity of existence, relying mainly on skill and experience to survive the raw, wintry conditions of the Taiga and return to the village with food and game.

Violence

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. Fish are stabbed and shot underwater. There's a spoken story about a bear killing a dog. Little to no blood is shown.

Sex
Language

The word "bitch" is used a few times (in subtitles), but only in reference to its actual meaning: a female dog.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

In one sequence, the movie explains how many of the inhabitants of this small village have a drinking problem, specifically mentioning vodka. One local seems to be either drunk or slightly crazy. (The main subjects don't seem to drink at all.) In another scene, locals drink strong vodka that the narration describes as being like "jet fuel." Some subjects are shown smoking cigarettes as well.

What 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. There's some violence related to hunting, with animals harmed and/or killed. In one sequence, a dog chases and bites a small animal. The movie briefly discusses the fact that many of the residents of this area have a drinking problem; some drinking is shown, as is cigarette smoking. The word "bitch" is used a few times, but only in reference to female dogs. These issues aside, Happy People is fascinating, informative, and sometimes touching, even showing what life might be like without media and cell phones. It should be fine for younger teens and older tweens.

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What's the story?

After acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog discovered four hours of footage about hunter-trappers in the remote Siberian Taiga region, he decided, with the blessing of original director Dmitry Vasyukov, to edit his own, feature-length version, with his own narration. Using skills and tools passed down through the generations, the trappers prepare all year long for the frozen winter and the lonely job of catching enough game in the woods to survive. Viewers watch as these amazing people make their own skis and build safe, secure shelters. Perhaps even more amazing are the hunting dogs -- fierce, dedicated, and unbelievably brave.

Is it any good?

It's a fascinating, even touching, movie. Herzog's best assets -- his foolhardy courage and nonjudgmental curiosity -- usually make his documentaries great. The major drawback of HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA is that, because Herzog wasn't actually there, he never personally interviewed his subjects; consequently, they don't quite achieve the depth of personality that they might have in another Herzog movie. Moreover, 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 Herzog more than makes up for these shortcomings with his tender, awestruck view of his subjects, and his narration reflects these qualities as he tells their story. As he speaks, his admiration quickly rubs off on viewers. And the footage shot by Vasyukov is striking, lovingly detailed, and certainly up to par with anything Herzog himself might have done.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the concept of hunting. How violent is this act as depicted in the movie? What's the difference between hunting for sport and hunting for a living?

  • How does Happy People address drinking? Which interview subjects appear to be drinkers? What do you think might cause people in this region and lifestyle to start drinking?

  • If you lived in this area, what would you miss about your life as it is now? If you had been born there, how much do you think you would miss?

Movie details

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