Picture a wide open landscape of an endless white carpet of snow; patches of old growth forest with trees covered in lichen. Suddenly a flock of reindeer appears from between the white hills: with massive antlers on their heads, and tiny white fur-balls aka. fluffy reindeer calves roaming between their legs. The herd grows bigger, thousands of animals emerge from the forest, moving in harmony like a swarm of birds. Behind them men are zooming in, rounding up their herd on foot or cross-country skies. They look rugged, but treat their animals gently. They are dressed in deep navy blue coats, decorated with bright red and yellow embroideries. Wooden cups and ornately carved knives dangle from their hips. Their pointy boots are made of reindeer skins.
Looks like your average image of a Scandinavian reindeer herders of Sami origin, right? Well, now picture the same men riding ATMs and snow mobiles to follow their herds; tracking them down with a helicopter; and most importantly choosing animals for slaughter and butcher them, producing the valuable meat they sell on the markets in the south. Not so idyllic anymore? Well, but at least, authentic.
Authentic is the image that American filmmaker Jessica Oreck assembles of the North Salla Cooperative, the last remaining reindeer herding cooperative in Finland, that lets their animals roam free during winter, and manages a herd of several thousand animals. For one year she followed the herding brothers Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki and their families, and portrays their seasonal routines and close bond to their land and their animals. Aatsinki – The Story of Arctic Cowboys is an homage to the reindeer herding cowboys of the North and an honest de-romanticisation of a traditional, but ever-changing culture.
Her documentary film is a pure experience of what it means to partake in the Arctic life. No background music eases the weight of silence felt up North. Above the Arctic Circle there are few birds or insects humming in the air, and hardly any wind. Sometimes the only noise you can hear is that of a roaring snow mobile engine, or that of a crackling fire. No voice-over or interview explains the rituals and tasks we witness. The pure image tells the story. Jessica says, this mirrors her own confusion upon the experience. The Aatsinki brothers are quiet men, and she was thrown into the cold water, left to investigate the meanings for herself.
Jessica’s film leaves a lot of space for personal interpretation, but to support her own findings and raise awareness for the issues of reindeer herding, she launched an interactive companion for the documentary: The Aatsinki Season. Short clips, many of them also featured in the film, show various tasks in the annual cycle of reindeer herding. An explanatory voice-over specifies the who and the what, and raises questions to be considered when dealing with this traditional, yet economically crucial business.
Here are only four of them: 1. The land used for reindeer herding is owned partly private, partly public and partly federal. Even though herding is legal, conflicts with local mining, forestry and tourism industries often arise. 2. Leaving the reindeer to themselves over winter, without feeding supplementary hay, is cheaper for the herders, and results in high quality meat achieving higher prices on the markets. However, increasingly warm winter days, make the snow melt and form ice overnight, so that the reindeer’s natural winter fodder (moss) gets sealed away under a layer of ice. Investing in additional hay and losing profit becomes inevitable. 3. Local schools close down, forcing parents to drive their children to schools in more centralised locations. This means that not only the kids, but also the driving parent have to stay away from herding activities during the day, during schooldays. Thus the passing on of traditions across generations gets limited to weekends and holidays. 4. The use of modern technology, like helicopters or snow mobiles, get denunciated by environmentalists; the concept of “traditional culture” becomes a political tool to gain indigenous rights – both facts leave the reindeer herder caught up in a predicament: preserving the indigenous culture or allowing the natural development of culture.
And as the economic and social pressure on the herders increases, managing reindeer herds becomes less and less sustainable. Many herders are going bankrupt and Aarne and Lasse might be part of the last generation to follow this occupation full-time.
The romantic image of the reindeer herder living in close connection to nature and animals, has a true core. The bond between a herder and his hundreds of reindeer is exceptionally close. Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki prove this by remembering every little detail about their individual reindeer. The public, however, is often only shown one side of the coin. The tourists in the film get to experience the snow mobile adventures or the reindeer sleigh rides, not the butchering or skinning. Jessica digs deeper and sheds some light on the other side. A side which proves to be highly complex and alluring at the same time.
Aatsinki – The Story of Arctic Cowboys premiered in April 2013 at Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and was selected for the currently ongoing Glasgow Film Festival 2014, which will conclude on Sunday March 2nd. A big thank you goes out to Jessica Oreck, who met up with me after the Glasgow screening on Feb 22nd.
This article first appeared on Travelettes.net on Feb 23, 2014.