Jessica Oreck discusses the rewards and challenges of working in sub-zero temperatures for her new film Aatsinki: the Story of Arctic Cowboys.
Jessica Oreck’s Aatsinki: the Story of Arctic Cowboys documents one year in the life of a family of reindeer herders in Finnish Lapland. Two brothers, along with their wives and children, are the leaders of a collective who manage the last group of wild reindeer in all of Finland. The image of a “cowboy” is often seen as uniquely American, a stoic man living in the western mountains and riding horses. Yet Oreck demonstrates how cowboys can really exist anywhere: bold loners and herders, who possess strong kinships with both the terrain of their landscape and the animals who inhabit it. While in America reindeer are perhaps regarded as primarily magical creatures, in this remote and freezing climate they are very real, used for practical purposes such as eating, transportation, and tourism. The film is filled with quiet moments of lovely snow-covered woods, the sliver of a pink sunrise peeking through sparkling trees, or reindeer pulling sleds in a long train, driven by men in big furry hats. It is a lifestyle contingent on living with the land, rather than on it. I spoke with Oreck about her time in the Arctic (a very extreme transition, coming from New York City), the troubles reindeer herders face, and the challenging way of life they maintain with cheer and pride.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold Here in the United States, if you mention reindeer, the first thing most people think of is a mythological creature, pulling Santa’s sleigh at Christmas.
Jessica Oreck It’s amazing how many Americans think that reindeer are mythological creatures!
AJG Yet in the film, they’re shown to be part of an industry, and they certainly can’t fly. I read you were looking for a modern equivalent of the classic American frontier story. Why did that ideal interest you?
JO I grew up watching Westerns. Westerns are a good indicator of what Americans use as their standard, in terms of almost all narratives, and also the way we define masculinity and femininity. It’s a basic underlying theme of the American subconscious, and I wanted to explore that. But this film was less about that than about a character who was tied to the land and represented these qualities, who was humble yet capable. It was the same as this idea of what we as Americans project onto our American Dream, but it doesn’t really exist here in the U.S. anymore so much.
AJG Did you have any exposure to that lifestyle or profession previously? Or was the concept of herding reindeer completely new to you?
JO I spent a bunch of time in Colorado, where I had grown up around certain wannabe cowboys. I never really spent time with real cowboys, though they do exist in the West. I wanted something that was more unadulterated than that, something that was cleaner and truer and not so influenced by Hollywood. Reindeer herding seemed like a good thing; it’s pretty isolated, and there aren’t that many movies made about it. I had originally started looking in Siberia and then my parents moved to Finland, so I started looking in Finland.
AJG How does one become a reindeer herder? It is mostly a family business, one of those very specific professions you have to be born into?
JO It depends what country you live in. In northern Europe, Finland is the only country that allows non-Sami people to be reindeer herders. Sami is the traditional ethnic group of northern Europe. It’s not lucrative to be a reindeer herder, and it’s a huge amount of work. It’s a real lifestyle, so it is something generally passed down from generation to generation. It’s not something you fall into.
AJG The characters who do the bulk of the work on-screen are mostly male. What are the roles of women in this process?
JO In the past, it has been very male-centric, though Finland in general is very forward thinking in terms of sexual equalities. Several of the women now have a large stake of reindeer in the herd, and work alongside the men just like everybody else.
AJG Reindeer are prominent in some parts of the world, but completely unseen in others. What is it that makes them special?
JO They’re the only real meat animal that can survive in the Arctic! They’re incredibly well-adapted for that environment. Their fur is hollow, they’re well insulated, and their hooves spread apart so that they can stand on top of the snow. They have a lot of evolutionary traits that make them well-suited to living there, where not many other creatures can. But also, the right type of reindeer meat, if it’s very fresh—if the reindeer is quite wild as opposed to penned and fed grains—can be quite delicious. Not nearly as gamey as venison, if it’s butchered right. It’s almost like a great steak.
AJG So a reindeer truly tastes different when it has been raised in captivity?
JO It does. The family that I followed for the film have the last herd of really wild reindeer in Finland. Because of the predator problems and because of climate change, it’s becoming more difficult to maintain herds the way they do.
AJG How do you think this profession inspires a connection with nature?
JO Both of the brothers I followed have a sixth sense about the natural world. The first time I went out with them, it was nearly blizzarding, very snowy conditions. We were on a snowmobile, with headphones to protect our ears from the sound. And we were looking for the herd. There were no visual or auditory clues to indicate the direction of the herd, but still, they were able to find them. They’ll look outside one day and say “Oh, it will snow in two hours,” or “At 8:45 tonight there will be an Aurora Borealis.” They know their landscape so well. Once I was showing them pictures I’d taken of the landscape, and at one point I showed a picture of a random tree, and they were like, “Oh, I know that tree.”
AJG What are some of the difficulties or dilemmas these herders face, whether they be environmental, moral, or political?
JO This is why we built the online interactive companion to the film, to discuss these questions: it’s called the Aatsinki Season. There are so many issues facing these herders. Climate change is a big one, because it changes the way the reindeer feed, the way the herders can actually follow the herd. The E.U. has a bunch of regulations they put into place that are very problematic, predator management laws being a big one. Also, the way reindeer is dealt with in the global market. How to support the local herders without paying too much—all the same problems that farmers across the globe are facing. Even though the environment is more extreme, it’s the same issues, and that makes the story more potent. I hope it will allow people to engage in discussions without setting off any of the taboos that happen when you talk about your own personal story.
AJG Do you think they could still easily do this work if not for modern technology like snowmobiles and helicopters?
JO They used to do it all on cross-country skis and reindeer sledding. They’ve done this for ten generations, well before snowmobiles and helicopters. Those things make it both easier and more difficult. Part of the reason they’ve had to start using technology is because the increased tourism in the industry has inured the reindeer to the sound of technology. It used to be that snowmobiles were enough to frighten the reindeer and make a lot of the herding process easier. But now, because they’re used to them, the herders have to use the helicopter, to sort of up the ante. It’s complicated; they need the tourism to survive, but it also makes their life a little bit harder.
AJG You were with them for a year. How difficult was it for you to be outside all the time in sub-zero temperatures, filming?
JO It actually wasn’t so bad; they took amazing care of me. Always made sure I was dressed warmly. When I got my first nibbles of frostbite, they immediately set me up by the fire. The hardest part was actually dealing with the politics of the cooperative I was filming. It wasn’t breaking my microphone in the middle of the Arctic; it was dealing with the human-to-human interaction that happens when you walk into a tightly knit group and you say, “I’m filming those two, and nobody else.”
AJG Did some people have a problem with you filming?
JO As is typical for a lot of Fins, there wasn’t much outspoken trouble or feedback. But there was a good deal of resentment or distrust in what it was that I was there for. Once they saw the movie, everyone felt better about it, and it seemed they all enjoyed the finished product quite a bit. It definitely took a long time to understand that I wasn’t there to make some exploitative piece about them. They have a lot of trouble with animal rights activists, even though the reindeer have so much of a better life than any type of beef stock we have in the United States! It’s hard to believe that’s what animal rights groups would choose to focus on. But they have.
AJG There isn’t a whole lot of dialogue in the film. Is this how they always work, communicating in other ways such as with body language?
JO Part of what interested me is the way they’re tuned into the herd—there’s almost no talking between them. They’re able to sense what needs to get done. It means they also aren’t good at explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing. All of it has been done for them since they were kids. Any sort of verbal communication was very difficult, so I was often completely confused as to why anything was happening or how they knew what to do. But that’s the way they function. And Fins are usually quite quiet, Lappish Fins even more so. And added to that, they are real cowboys, so the amount of verbal communication was exceedingly limited.
AJG Since they’re working so intimately with these animals, do the herders ever get attached to them as pets and not want to eat them, or is killing them simply a thing they’re all used to at this point?
JO There are certain reindeer that are not used for meat, but are saved instead for the tourism industry—they train them to lead sleighs around—or for things around the house. Those reindeer become much more a part of the family and are mourned when they die. But reindeer are wild; they can’t really be tamed. They don’t like to be petted by humans, they never really calm down and get attached to humans the way, say, a horse would. So it’s not at all the same thing as a pet. But the girls each have their own reindeer which they got the year that they were born and recently when one died, it was certainly a cause for great sadness around the house.
AJG There are many beautiful shots of the snow and the wild captured on film, but also endearing moments between family members, particularly when the kids are unwrapping their presents at Christmas. Did you get close to the family, or did you maintain a sort of professional distance?
JO I don’t really believe in professional distance when you’re making a film about a family. What I wanted was to get as close to them as I could so I could represent them as honestly and as respectfully as I could, and they would trust me to do that. I spent a lot of time with them and I Skype with them probably once every week or two—the girls will get on and practice their English with me. They taught me to knit and to cook and to sew leather. They just accepted me as part of their family. I was their fourth overgrown, but totally incapable, child. Coming from the city, I didn’t know anything that was useful to them. When they would ask me what I did, I’d say “Oh, I can build websites and make movies,” and they’d say “Yes, but you don’t know how to cook or build a fire! What are you doing with your life?” They were very gracious to allow me to learn!
Aatsinki: the Story of Arctic Cowboys opened January 24th at IFC Center.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic based in New York City.