There are helicopters and snowmobiles and walkie-talkies in use throughout Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys, but the tool most often employed in Jessica Oreck’s patient, immersive documentary is a more primitive one: the knife.
The Finnish reindeer herders (primarily brothers Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki) whose rugged existence she’s chronicled here, are forever stripping branches into smaller pieces of firewood; in one enveloping early sequence, we watch two workers dissect an animal into its exports of meat and fur using a palm-sized blade but also a hacksaw.
As in those firewood shots, Oreck’s camera follows the trail of the blade, at least until the time comes to hunch over and extract the reindeer’s swollen, slippery stomach.
Her film contains little speech and even less music. While some of the workers’ chitchat is translated via subtitles, long passages of it are not. Oreck’s imagery of the forbidding Arctic landscape through its seasonal transformations (the movie covers roughly a year) is eloquent enough.
The most frequently heard sounds are the crackle of flames, the insistent rasp of wind against her microphone, and the hum of a generator. Scenes of the brothers at play with their young daughters quietly reinforce the sense of responsibility that motivates these long days of labor.
I found myself wondering if the cold disguises the smell of these animals and their remains. It’s the only sensory detail Oreck doesn’t capture.