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

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A Siberian villager in 'Happy People: A Year in the Taiga' Studio Babelsberg

‘Happy People: A Year in the Taiga'

★★★1⁄2

Not rated

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Pittsburgher movie quiz for yunz

Is 'Birdman' star Michael Keaton the best actor with western Pennsylvania ties? Click here to play the Trib's tongue-in-cheek attempt to find out.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Colin Covert
Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
 

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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