Happy People: A Year in the Taiga / The Gatekeepers 

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Love a good documentary? If so, you’re in luck, since two excellent, if decidedly different, ones are in town this week.

Werner Herzog is easily among the most singular of documentary makers, having made such elegantly strange works as Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Still, fans of his might be a bit disappointed to find their usually indefatigable hero somewhat muted in Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. It screens Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, then hits DVD on April 23.

Detailing life in a remarkably primitive Siberian village, the film is co-directed by Herzog and first-timer Dmitry Vasyukov. Herzog reportedly came to the project after viewing four hours of footage that Vasyukov and his team had shot. Herzog honed the material and, while the result is fine — certainly a fascinating
window on a world far removed from our noisy, technologically saturated
culture — it doesn’t fully bear the stamp of Herzog’s madman
subjectivity. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just different, which is to
say it’s a more conventional documentary.

are Herzogian touches. The German filmmaker’s distinctive voice-over
narration, while sparing, effectively conveys his affection for the
people of the Taiga, the Siberian wilderness. In other hands, such
unabashed enthusiasm would seem ironic or patronizing.

At Happy People’s center
is Bakhta, population 300, a village reachable only by helicopter or
during the few months of the year that the Yenisei River isn’t frozen.
The region has no electricity, no running water, no medical care.
Utilizing skills that have been passed along through generations, its
residents primarily use handmade tools for hunting and trapping.

in the Taiga is hard and grueling, but, as the doc illustrates, also
one of real beauty. “They are truly free,” Herzog says, “equipped only
with their individual values and code of conduct.”

The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers turns
its attention to a different terrain, but one arguably even more
treacherous. Now showing exclusively at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, the
Oscar-nominated documentary is a revelatory look at the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict as seen through the eyes of some of the
world’s most (until now) secretive spymasters.

Dror Moreh interviews six retired directors of the Shin Bet, Israel’s
elite domestic intelligence agency. None has spoken previously about his
experiences and perspective. Their reason for doing so now becomes clearer as The Gatekeepers unfolds.

interviews are probing, reflective and often surprising. This is far
from talking-head stuff. Employing archival news footage and some
visually arresting sleight-of-hand, Moreh addresses the war on terrorism
that Israel has waged since its 1967 seizing of the West Bank, Gaza and
Jerusalem. The Shin Bet, an organization so secretive that its only
identified members have been its directors, has been at the fore of such
operations. The grim stories recounted here — of infiltration,
interrogation and assassination — are riveting.

The Gatekeepers covers an impressive expanse of events in its lean running time,
from ’67’s Six-Day War to the Intifadas in the late 1980s and the 1995
killing of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing
extremist. But the documentary is never rushed. Its candor and clarity
make for a film of astonishing urgency and power.

Hey! Read This:
Cave of Forgotten Dreams Blu-ray review 
Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass book review   

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Phil Bacharach

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