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Happy People: A Year in the Taiga ***

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Werner Herzog just happened upon a friend who was screening four films about professional trappers in the Siberian taiga, tradesmen who for centuries have used the same system of capturing animals because they are “unable to invent something new.”

Herzog was so taken by the footage that he contacted its creator, Dmitry Vasyukov, and asked if he could — without any second guessing — change the narration, add a different musical score, and cut it down to 90 minutes. Vasyukov enthusiastically agreed and the result is Happy People, a captivating portrait of a group of individuals who, without any outside interference, work to live and live to work. The hunters make their own everything, from skis to mosquito repellent, and their attachment to their four-legged companions (“You are nothing without a dog”) is downright inspirational.

There are the usual flights of surreal fantasy one associates with a Herzog documentary. When the river thaws, a local politician, complete with a bevy of “cheerleaders,” docks briefly for a campaign whistle-stop. When the film’s main character caught wind of the project, he contacted the filmmakers, imploring them to let audiences know that they’re doing fine. “You don’t need to pity us,” he insisted. “We are proud.” Pity and sentiment have no place in this picture, and the huntsman’s pride is never once brought into question.

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