Film Review: Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic CowboysJessica Oreck's stand-back-and-observe approach to this study of reindeer herders will leave most viewers dissatisfied.
.A look at Arctic reindeer herding whose Direct Cinema austerity makes it ill-suited for general audiences, Jessica Oreck's Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys offers occasional moments of quiet beauty but will try the patience of even open-minded viewers.
Resembling 2009's Sweetgrass but never achieving that film's man/nature poetry, the film plunks us without so much as a scene-setting opening title into Lapland, Finland, where a small group of men are steering herds of reindeer using helicopters, ATVs and walkie-talkies.
None of the men are introduced, but in time we realize two similar faces—one clean-shaven, one bearing a short-trimmed goatee—are getting the lion's share of screen time. Only in the end credits, which thank Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki, do we surmise they are brothers; festival notes relayed that they lead a local herders' collective, but neither has a personality that comes across onscreen or is seen doing anything to suggest his position in this community.
The film's follow-the-seasons structure is apparent—warm-weather scenes precede snowy ones, which lead to Christmas celebrations. But Oreck's refusal to ask her subjects questions or offer any narration leaves many other things annoyingly inexplicable. Why do the men cut multiple notches in their animals' ears, then slash their bodies seemingly at random? If it's to identify one man's reindeer from another's, why not do it uniformly, instead of keeping a pencil-and-paper log of each individual in the herd? Or, easier for man and gentler to beast, why not rely on the plastic tags the herders are already using?
A more vexing question: How many times will we watch as a cowboy whittles up some kindling and hangs his kettle above a campfire?
Surely, the film has some anthropological value. And even non-academics will find pleasure in some of the things it witnesses: Though Oreck's digital camera isn't equal to this grandeur, shots of massive herds of reindeer moving swiftly through the woods or of the pale pinks and blues of an iced-over winter morning offer some payoff for viewers who bear with the film.