Film review: Aatsinki - The Story of Arctic Cowboys


Filmmaker Jessica Oreck certainly went the extra mile to produce her latest documentary ‘Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys’.

The New Yorker gave up city life for eight months to live without electricity in a hut in Finland and document the unique lives of the reindeer herders who farm the icy environment.

The resultant work is a mesmerising piece of immersive film which is at times as demanding as the landscape it portrays.

With not a single word of voiceover or talking head to offer explanation or insight, everything is communicated by way of the action on screen.

It’s a method which was used to similarly great effect to chart life on a fishing vessel by British film ‘Leviathan’ last year.

‘Aatsinki’ is just as eloquent and poetic as that masterpiece, tightly edited and shot with a love for its subjects that shines through the grey of the tundra.

The lack of an obvious narrative arc gives the viewer the freedom to just sit back and revel in the images which - slowly but surely - develop into a coherent story.

Starting with a massive herd of reindeer galloping through snow-packed woods, the beautiful and dreamlike images soon turn visceral, with the animals disembowelled and carved up with precision by the rugged cowboys and smiling cowgirls.

Two characters gradually emerge as the main protagonists - brothers Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki.

They are strong silent men, who both live their lives according to the traditions of their forebears; taking care of their young families and animals with by turns a tender hand and a steely resolve.

Ritual rules in the arctic world, with each season bringing a new series of jobs to be done.

Meanwhile, on a daily basis fires are built, coffee made and items carved repeatedly, giving the story an almost musical rhythm.

The timeless scenes could be from a century ago until a snowmobile or helicopter roars into view, dragging the action back into the modern world.

It’s a world which seems to be encroaching on both the camera and the herdsmen’s way of life; traditional Christmas celebrations inevitably end with children’s faces lit up by computer game screens.

The painful overall impression that this is a love letter to a way of life which is already extinct - it’s just that the Aatsinkis don’t know it yet.