Where, you wonder, are the albino alligators? Thirty minutes pass, 45, 70. A moose appears, a bear, chipmunks, woodcocks, geese, but alas no albino alligators. And so it goes to the final fade of Happy People.
No creature, of course, is more fabled in the Werner Herzog cinematic canon than the albino alligator, having made its famous debut near the end of the 2011 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams as a sort of . . . well, what the heck were they doing there?
Later Herzog would admit the mind-messing reptiles, supposedly the creepy spawn of radioactive fallout from a French nuclear plant, were a hoax. Or, as he memorably put it, "an ecstatic truth" beyond the mundaneness of facts, a counterpoise to the "accountant's truths" that he claimed hobble most documentaries.
Happy People is Herzog's version of an accountant's documentary. Shot in 2010, it's a sympathetic account – a romance, in fact – of the lives and labours of villagers alongside the Yenisei River in remote Siberia, a harsh microverse accessible to the outside world only by helicopter and, during the summer, by boat. Trapping (of sable and ermine) is the mainstay of the region's economy and has been for centuries.
Unsurprisingly but fittingly, Herzog and co-director Vasyukov structure their tale around the four seasons (winter being the dominant one, of course) and the myriad adaptations the 300 inhabitants of Bakhtia make to their rhythms and those of the animals that form their livelihood. So you get a lot of men in fur hats and beards, wielding chainsaws and driving Ski-Doos, talking about trapping techniques, the peskiness of bears and mosquitoes, the bond between man and dog and how to spear a pike and insulate a cabin with moss and earth.
Yes, there are women and children here but Herzog (who narrates much of the film) and Vasyukov stay resolutely focused on the male and the masculine. It's the dudes, in fact, who give the film its title. Once they leave the village on their Ski-Doos to head for the traplines, "the trappers become essentially what they are, happy people," Herzog waxes Teutonically. "Truly free," from taxes, bureaucracies, phones, radios, "equipped only with their own individual values and standard of conduct." The village, by contrast, is portrayed as a kind of den of iniquity where venal politicians show up, uninvited, to make empty promises and indigenous Siberians are stupefied by vodka "as vicious as jet fuel."
Often beautiful to look at, Happy People also manages to convey the appeal, serenity even of a self-reliant life (as opposed to lifestyle) honed to elemental perfection by centuries of repetitious encounters with the eternals of earth and sky, fire, water and ice. However, it feels too much, finally, like a Hinterland Who's Who instalment writ large, too respectful and plain for its own good, lacking the lyricism, those flights of the odd and the quizzical that would otherwise have earned it the adjective "Herzogian." In short, there are no albino alligators. And if there are, you can't see them for all the Siberian snow.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga begins a limited run on Friday at Toronto's Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
- Co-directed and co-written by Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov with Rudolph Herzog
- Classification: G
- 2.5 stars