Having premièred at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Jessica Oreck’s Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys (2013) reaches UK cinemas this week on limited release. It’s a meditative study on the lives and rituals of reindeer herders in Lapland – a delicate, deeply evocative ‘slice of life’ that tranquilly contemplates our relationship with the natural world. A documentary in the simplest sense, Aatsinki’s minimalist approach observes a family of reindeer herders in Finnish Lapland for an entire year. The Finnish landscape is sublime, romantically photographed by Oreck with ice-layered vistas and crisp snow giving way to banks of firs trees that proudly stand to attention against the horizon.
Unfortunately, even this remote region isn’t immune to the rise of globalisation, with Oreck allowing the helicopters and walkie-talkies now used by the caribou farmers to regularly punctuate the bucolic serenity. The strained dichotomy between industry and the natural world is well-represented through the use of sharp, juxtaposing edits between raucous communal gatherings and the solitude and tranquillity of the Arctic plateau. Nowhere, it seems, is safe from the relentless march of technological advancement. Whilst Aatsinki is undoubtedly an entrancing portrait of life within the Arctic Circle, the film’s bewitching quality gradually wears off. Without any real direct engagement with these families, we’re left stranded like a foreign exchange student in a distant land with little way of grasping our environs.
These communities rely on reindeer for everything from food, income and even transportation, thus a stronger emphasis on the lives of the reindeer and their importance would have suited this contemplative approach far more effectively. A visually exquisite and soulfully perceived vision of reality, Oreck’s Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys could be argued to be yet another well-meaning example of contemporary anthropological fetishism – a nostalgic attempt to capture the magic of exploration sullied by the ever-widening reach of modernisation. Maps were once adorned with mythical drawings in areas yet undiscovered. Unfortunately, the imagination and mystery of cartography has long since perished, and sadly there are no dragons to be seen here.
This review was originally published on 14 October 2013 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.