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'Happy People' doesn't give subjects the cold shoulder

| Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
A Siberian villager in 'Happy People: A Year in the Taiga' Studio Babelsberg

If you want a taste of life as it must have been for the Voyageurs of old, this documentary is a good place to start. It records the cycle of seasons in Bakhtia, Siberia, a remote village of 300 accessible only by helicopter or boat.

The settlers trap sable and fish for pike without access to phones, running water or modern medicine. They even blacksmith their own tools.

Director Dmitry Vasyukov gives the region's endless snowscapes a painterly, heroic beauty. There's a nighttime fishing scene, illuminated only by a fire basket extended from the dinghy's prow, that could hang on any museum wall. The ingenuity with which the locals set traps, create dugout canoes and hew their own skis is thrilling. And if you feel like a hardy pioneer after shoveling the driveway, you should see the settlers dislodge veritable icebergs from the tops of their thatched-roof dwellings.

The title is in no sense ironic. Vasyukov admires these independent spirits.

While veteran director Werner Herzog provided editing advice and a voice-over narration, there's a difference in perspective from most Herzog travelogues, which are entertainingly disdainful. Here, there's no chilly anthropological tone. The film looks up to its subjects, not down upon them. You will, too, when you see how intense the cold gets before they put on gloves.

Colin Covert reviews movies for the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune.

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