Finnish documentarian Jessica Oreck's Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys follows an indefinite period in the lives of a family of reindeer herders in Northern Finland, adjacent to the Arctic Circle. Much has already been made in the press of the fundamentalism of Oreck's approach. She's a direct-cinema purist and, true to form, omits all fanfare and exposition to give us one of the most matter-of-fact onscreen chronicles of grassroots husbandry in memory. Some critics have favorably likened Aatsinki to Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash's sheepherding documentary Sweetgrass (which also lacked voice-overs), but such comparisons are sophistic and insulting to Oreck. That was a pretentious, boring, and vulgar travesty; Aatsinki is in many ways the film Sweetgrass should have been -- a suitably languorous yet engrossing trip through a world that most of us are only vaguely aware of. In terms of what Aatsinki achieves, it feels like a descendant not of Barbash and Castaing-Taylor, but of the grand dame of observational documentaries, Ulrike Ottinger, especially her 1992 opus Taiga. Oreck is working on the same skill level as Ottinger, and like that German pioneer, she keeps enabling us to look beyond the immediate into the infinite.
At its core, then, the film offers a profound existentialist riff, a poignant meditation on the nature of our existence as a species. In the aforementioned reindeer herders -- with their ritualistic, instinctive behavior and working practices -- Oreck perceives a unique window into mankind's proximity to the animal kingdom out of which it evolved. Just as we may look at the caribou, milling about in herds, and ponder what they are up to, so the conspicuous absence of soundtrack elaboration regarding the humans leaves beguiling enigmas surrounding them. Consider, for example, a brutal late-film sequence wherein several of the herders pin down terrified reindeer calves and trim their ears with razors. Does this have a purpose? Undoubtedly so, although the lay viewer will find it indecipherable; it's as alien to most of us as the behavior of the animals themselves. And at other times, we sense uncanny parallels between the species, as in a scene in which a herder boards a snowmobile and tracks a wolverine relentlessly through the snowbound fjords.
On a similar note: There are also elegantly conceived, zen-like sequences involving the human participants that purposefully contain no action -- in which the herders sit alone, staring into the distant sky. Emptiness hangs in the air, and vast unspoken questions linger about the purpose not simply of these individuals, but all of us. One wonders, rightly, if some metaphysical significance to these lives actually exists. Perhaps not, Oreck seems to be saying; perhaps all of the activities that we use to fill our time on Earth are simply handy distractions. Yet the film also gives us the impression that these herders are in some way less pretentious than those of us who claim to be more sophisticated -- the herders are more genuine, that is, by living and functioning in closer proximity to the natural world and the divide between Homo sapiens and other species. When we get long, meditative shots of trees fossilized by ice, caught beneath dusk-enshrouded pastel skies, Oreck seems to be exhorting her viewers to embrace and appreciate the creation that ensconces us, as these herders have.
In terms of its scene and shot composition, then, Aatsinki feels impeccably conceived and gauged -- the rare documentary that transcends the ostensible boundaries of its subject. Some observers have gently taken Oreck to task for her refusal to provide anything beyond a faint semblance of a human narrative here. Within the confines of direct cinema, it's true that other recent directors have traveled further in this direction: Consider Swedish filmmaker Linda Västrik, for example, with her 2013 masterpiece Forest of the Dancing Spirits. In the case of Oreck's film, however, such narrative threads would feel like serious miscalculations by working against the documentary's brooding, nihilistic undercurrents.