There seems to be a surge lately of documentary films that eschew voice-over narration, and in many cases any overt narrative at all, for a piece that stands stark and undiluted. Meaningful imagery that speaks for itself. Filmmakers who discover, curate, and find rhythm. Perhaps this is a response to the heavy editorial hand found in many of the most prominent docs of the past decade (i.e., Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, Blackfish), or to the ubiquity of the bastardized extensions of reality television. In any case, directors are increasingly interested in pushing the vérité style to an über-patient and disorienting extreme, which is what we find in Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys
Director Jessica Oreck throws us into the rugged lifestyle of a group of Finnish reindeer herders, specifically focusing on the titular Aatsinki family. Their day-to-day tasks are cycled through unceremoniously. Reindeer are tagged, maintained, and occasionally slaughtered. We observe the steely-eyed diligence of a culture built upon harsh, manual labor. We see the value of simple pleasures, like a good piece of fish cooked over the campfire. We watch the Aatsinkis at Christmas, receiving familiar gifts like an electric razor or a Nintendo DS video game, and understand that they’re not truly that far removed from the rest of us. According to the film’s website, the director’s intent was to “fully submerse the audience into Finnish Lapland and its people,” and in that respect she is totally successful. However, I was still left asking, “Why was I submersed in that?”
One of the most difficult hurdles to crafting a documentary in this particular style is to separate the substantial from the arbitrary, or at least to shape the latter into the former. A film like Aatsinki exists in a space where there are no failures or wrong answers: it presents itself as an honest portrayal of these reindeer herders’ lives, take it or leave it. If you find it boring, it’s as if you’re finding the people themselves boring. Likewise if you find it inspiring, brutal, or anything at all, really. And when all’s said and done, there’s no conclusive problem with that, but we do expect the director to have shown us all this arctic beauty this for a reason. The film’s press materials claim that “[The Aatsinkis] story raises weighty questions about what it means to live with the land and invites audience members to reconsider their own assumptions about technology, food production, and, most critically, man’s place in nature.” It’s not necessarily false advertising: watching the film, it feels as if Aatsinki would like to actually do just that. But what about this piece invites the viewer to rethink all these things? Footage of a radically different lifestyle to ones own? Elegant cinematography of an exotic locale? Snowmobiles?
The trouble is that the trope of extracting beauty out of the quotidian has grown so commonplace, it can essentially be rendered in shorthand. An art-house audience understands that they’re supposed to assess “weighty questions,” whether or not they are actually driven to do so. It’s in leaning on that notion that the film unfortunately stumbles.