Serendipity is what gives us "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga," an intimate portrait of the vanishing breed of hunters and fishers still making a life in the isolated heart of Siberia, where a mild winter day is minus 30 and the only way in or out is by helicopter or boat.
That we are given a glimpse of this extraordinary place and its people at all is because of pure chance.
Within the vast expanse of what Vasyukov had shot, Herzog saw a story. But first, he had to persuade the Russian filmmaker to trust him. That Vasyukov said yes, allowing Herzog complete control, brings us to "Happy People," now a tight 94-minute journey to an icy never-never land.
In a wilderness nearly as forbidding as the one Herzog captured in his Oscar-nominated look at Antarctica, "
Though others will move in and out of the documentary, Soloviev will anchor it. He is a trapper by trade, primarily sable pelts, and an unlikely environmentalist.
But he is so at one with the Taiga, and so intent on respecting the ebb and flow of life there, that it is impossible not to be drawn into his world.
In Soloviev's hands, we see an ordinary ax become an instrument of art. Traps, huts, snow skis — the useful sort — emerge from felled trees with techniques handed down for generations. One of his dogs is always at his side, as critical to a hunter's survival as a trap or a gun. There is no room for coddling here: The dogs sleep in the snow outside, and they run for miles at a time, yet the bond between the animals and the man becomes its own story.
The village of Bakhta that is home to the hunters and fishermen of the Taiga is a case study in the strange ways that civilization does — and doesn't — take hold as it intersects with indigenous people. The village remains without running water, or telephones, or medical aid for its 300 residents. Yet the men rely on snowmobiles when they head out for months at a time to trap in their allotted areas. Most often it is an old wooden canoe that gets the fuel-powered monsters to the backcountry.
Life in the Taiga is harsh, but for people like Soloviev, it is a rich and satisfying life. When he heard Herzog's shorter version would be shown around the world, he asked the director to make sure that no one pities their poverty, that we know the people of Bakhta are happy.