Still from “Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys” (all film stills courtesy the author)
I love old Westerns. The character of the cowboy is infinitely appealing to me. I love the idea of a man alone in a great expanse of space, in tune with the weather and the needs of his animals. He knows the stars and the landscape almost innately. He is separate from the driving rush of civilization, his time exists for daylight and moonlight. He doesn’t have a Blackberry.
I wanted to find that type of person — the modern equivalent of a Randolph Scott character. So I set out across the north of Finland, searching. And what I found are the main subjects of my film, Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys, currently screening at IFC Center in New York City.
Brothers and reindeer herders Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki, are truly that type of cowboy. Over the course of a year and a half, I spent more than nine months with the two brothers and their families. I tried to immerse myself in their lives as fully as possible. I ate dinner with them most nights, babysat their kids, and pretty much stuck to them like glue. They taught me to sew, light a fire, chop wood, cook, train reindeer, and feed sheep. They became my adopted family and my best friends.
Working in the arctic isn’t easy. I had nibbles of frostbite, and when my gear would break, there was nowhere to go to replace it. My batteries would die quickly in the cold, so I kept them in my bra to try to keep them warm after they had been charged. The lenses would also ice and fog when we would move between inside and outside. Because I didn’t speak the language, I usually had no clue what was happening and had to be prepared for anything.
And it was really hard to spend so much time out of communication with people in the United States. The nearest internet connection was about 70 kilometers away, at a little pub in a hotel. I made great friends while I was in Finland, but I missed being able to talk to my boyfriend, my friends, my sister, and my grandparents. That part of it was strangely isolating. So every few days I would drive to the hotel, sit in this pub, and Skype. Some times were easier than others. Every once in a while, a drunk tourist would stumble into the frame and whoever I was talking with would have a good laugh at my situation.
But for the most part, I loved it. I was always much, much colder than any of the herders (which they thought was quite comical), but they always took care of me and lent me gear to keep me dry or toasty. And Finns know how to get warm. Taking sauna was the best part of each day. I think, if I ever retire, it will be some place like that.
It is my hope that the movie will communicate a lifestyle that many people have no concept of. It is about extreme cold, hard work, sunlight, nighttime, leisure time—it is about knowing the land, working with the land, and being connected to it.
In a way, it is also about getting people to reframe the way they see themselves within the context of the natural world. By bringing audiences into the pacing and soundscapes and cycles and light of Lapland, I hope Aatsinki will generate a new perspective—a space for audience members to reframe their very basic ideas about the various ways humans think about and use nature. That was very much my own experience in Lapland, which I hope to share even a little bit through the film.
Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys directed by Jessica Oreck is screening through Thursday, January 30 at IFC Center in New York City. Upcoming screenings can be found on the Aatsinki site, where you can also find interactive features and pre-order the DVD. You can also experience a year in the life of a family of reindeer herders in Finish Lapland at Aatsinki Season, the film’s companion site.