The Cave of Forgotten Dreams/Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am

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The Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Director: Werner Herzog

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Directors: Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov

He's hitting 70 this year but Werner Herzog is not resting on his laurels: his two recent documentaries are proof of a filmmaker on a roll, still blazing trails with subjects which would have fared much less well in unimaginative hands.

Which other director, for example, could have extracted a mesmerising study of human existence from a grotto or a remote outpost in Siberia?

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams revolves around the Chauvet Cave in southern France, the site of evocative wall paintings of human beings and animals dating back to more than 30,000 years ago that was only discovered in 1994.

So it is that the documentary reflects on the beauty and cultural significance of the cavern and these drawings - but trust Herzog to leaven the premise with his own long-running concerns about social misfits: the film examines not only the lives of the ancient people who populated the cave, but also the present-day archaeologists and anthropologists spending their lives poring over the relics.

Along the lines of Grizzly Man - in which the German director weaves the ill-fated bear-lover Timothy Treadwell's own video footage into a larger film about his obsession with the wild - Happy People: A Year in the Taiga also sees Herzog reinterpreting the raw material to his own liking.

Here, the imagery is drawn from the footage shot by Russian director Dmitry Vasyukov of the inhabitants of Bakhtia, a small settlement in the arctic reaches of Russia; comprising four seasonal episodes, the documentary reveals a community thriving in the face of isolation and natural extremes in a place where winter doesn't end until May.

Herzog and Vasyukov narrow the focus even further by zeroing in on a group of villagers who spend most of the year living as wandering huntsmen in the wild, showing great determination in leading lives devoid of any material comfort.

Unfortunately, home video doesn't do justice to these two documentaries. While a beguiling experience, The Cave attracted critical acclaim upon its release because of its ability to relay the Chauvet Cave's staggering topography in 3-D.

Happy People suffered from a substandard transfer, the often blurry images undermining the epic lives being shown on screen. Extras: for The Cave, a featurette on the making of the soundtrack and a trailer; no extras for Happy People.