Filmmakers Talk About Finland's Reindeer Cowboys

From Santa stories to reindeer slaughterhouses, filmmakers Jessica Oreck and Rachael Teel immerse themselves in the lives of "Arctic cowboys."

When filmmakers Jessica Oreck and Rachael Teel started looking for modern-day cowboys to follow for their new documentary, they didn't start in the American West. Instead, they looked to Finland (map).

Oreck and Teel are fascinated by how people interact with the world around them, and their film, Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys, brings viewers into the lives of Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki. The two brothers lead a collective of herders who manage the last group of wild reindeer in Finland.

The film was nominated for best documentary feature at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.

The companion website, The Aatsinki Season, was recently a finalist in the interactive and new media category at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

We caught up with the filmmakers and asked them to tell us more about their work.

Why did you decide to create a film about the Aatsinki brothers and their way of life?

JESSICA ORECK: I make films about ethnobiology, about the ways that cultures interact with the natural world. I've always loved Hollywood westerns—I really love Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart. And I decided that I wanted to find a contemporary cowboy that had the character elements of those quintessential American cowboys.

Can you tell us a bit about your time in Finnish Lapland and what went into capturing the footage?

ORECK: I lived there on and off for a little more than a year. I had a cabin to myself out in the woods that had no heat and no hot water, but it was an amazing little cabin that I loved dearly. Every morning I would just show up at the Aatsinkis' house and wait around for whatever it was that they were going to do that day.

I shot by myself, and I tried to integrate as much as I could with their family. I became very close with all of them and would spend time babysitting their young girls, learning to sew with the wife of the younger brother, and trying to make myself as much a part of their lives as I could, so that I could represent [their life] as effectively and truthfully as possible.

How did you find this particular family?

ORECK: I spent a couple of weeks traveling around Finland looking for a family, and I met a lot of amazing people, but I just couldn't find anybody that loved the camera or that was clicking quite right.

So I called my mom and complained, and in perfect mom fashion, she said, "Well, there's this really sweet guy who works at the farmer's market, and I'm sure he knows some reindeer herders."

I rolled my eyes and told her that that was very sweet of her but probably not true. But I talked to the guy at the farmer's market, and sure enough he said that he had the perfect family for me.

I met him at a parking lot in Rovaniemi [map], which is one of the towns right on the Arctic Circle. We drove way up into the hills [where] I met Aarne Aatsinki, and immediately I knew: This is the guy.

He was so comfortable in front of the camera, and he pretty much just ignored me from the start, which is ideal. But he was very sweet and represented all the qualities that I was looking for almost instantly.

So I shook his hand and told him I'd be back in September to film him and his family, and he just said, "joo, joo," which in Finnish means "yes, yes."

But it turns out he didn't speak English all that well. I'm not sure that he understood the full commitment of it. So when I showed up in September, he was like, "Oh, here you are again! What are you doing here?"

What did you learn about this culture, and what do you want viewers to take away from the film?

ORECK: I always knew from the very beginning that I wanted the film to be very experiential. I wanted it to really transport the viewer into that place and into that lifestyle.

So I knew that the film wasn't going to have voiceover, it wasn't going to have a ton of explanations, and it wasn't going to have music, because one of the things that really astonished me about Lapland was how deadly silent it was.

I'd spend whole days with my ears ringing because it was so quiet and there was nothing to interrupt that silence.

How did you and Rachael start working together, and what was Rachael's role in the process?

RACHAEL TEEL: Well, in 2006 I was working on the Nature series at PBS and I hired Jessica to be our intern, so that's how we met. And then I went to grad school to study environmental anthropology from 2007 to 2009, and we stayed in touch. She hired me after I graduated in 2009—now she's my boss.

I did not go to Finland, unfortunately, but I was home and providing a lot of support for Jessica.

ORECK: Moral as well as [support] as a producer.

TEEL: I was on Skype giving her advice about how to do fieldwork and kind of integrate herself into this life.

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

ORECK: It was a pretty blissful experience. The family was so welcoming.

But there were hard parts, definitely, in terms of integrating myself into the rest of the herders' lives. They work as a cooperative, and the cooperative has a lot of complicated politics.

Not being able to speak the language—and so much goes unsaid there because Finns are naturally reserved—and then add on top of that Lappish Finns, and then add on top of that the fact that they're cowboys, and there's almost no communication at all. That was a challenge.

What was the most unexpected part of living with the herders?

ORECK: I was a vegetarian for a long time and then started eating meat a few years ago. I remember going to the slaughterhouse with the herders, and as soon as we walked in, that smell of the slaughterhouse, I was like, "Oh, man, I'm never going to be able to eat meat after watching this."

But watching the men kill and butcher the reindeer, the respect that they had for the animals, knowing that the animals had this wild lifestyle where they got to run free in the wilderness, and watching the efficiency and care that the men took with the reindeer, it just wasn't gross in any way.

I remember after eight hours of standing in that slaughterhouse filming, coming outside and there was a giant bowl of reindeer stew and just thinking that nothing tasted as good as that.

So that was a surprise for me, because I expected having to watch an animal be slaughtered to affect me in a different way.

Did you learn about any local holiday traditions?

ORECK: I celebrated Christmas with them on several occasions, and they have their own Christmas mythology, which is that Santa comes from this mountain very close to where the Aatsinkis live, called Korva Tunturi (map).

So Santa Claus comes Christmas Eve because the Finns realize that he has so much of the rest of the world to deliver presents to that he does his hometown first, so to speak. So they get their presents Christmas Eve.

Are reindeer involved in the Santa story at all?

ORECK: Yes, definitely. Rudolph is actually named Petri, which is like a Finnish Peter.

There's actually a pretty hilarious scene in the movie at Christmastime where they're talking about Petri, who's waiting outside for Santa Claus, and the wife of the younger brother says, "Oh, well, isn't [Petri] going to wander away from the sled to go look at our female reindeers?"

And [the local man playing] Santa says, "No, no, no, I've made it so that he's not interested in females"—meaning that he's castrated him.

You were also able to create an online companion to the film. Can you tell us about the web experience and what it means to the project overall?

ORECK: While I was in Finland, I came to understand so much more about the struggles that [the herders] face as contemporary independent farmers. I knew that I wanted that to be part of the project, but I just didn't know how. So Rachael and I started talking about it.

TEEL: Initially we were thinking that we would create a website that was a game almost—a way to get people into the lives of these herders in an educational, engaging, and entertaining way. But we realized that that mood wasn't going to match the mood of the film.

So we took the seasonal structure [of the film] and wrote out the sort of activities that the herders participated in at different times of the year, and what the biggest challenges at those times were.

ORECK: I wrote the original narrative for The Aatsinki Season, but Rachael did the really complicated part, which was actually constructing these questions and answers about the issues that are so balanced and well thought out, and I'm really impressed by the work that she did. I would never have been able to make it without her.

TEEL: I think the two things that we want people to take away from it are that, first of all, the issues that affect them are really, really complicated. There's no easy answer to how climate change is affecting the herders, for example.

And second, that the situations facing the herders are also facing small farmers and other herders around the world.

How long is the final film, and where can people watch it?

ORECK: The final film is 85 minutes long. We're still playing in festivals, but we're really hoping for a small theatrical run at the beginning of next year.

But eventually there will be DVDs available online and, hopefully, streaming.

What other projects are you currently working on?

ORECK: We're just finishing up a feature film that we've been working on for a long time, called The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, about forests and fairy tales in Eastern Europe.

TEEL: We also just finished a web series called Mysteries of Vernacular that we did for TED-Ed. There are 26 installments, one for each letter of the alphabet, and each episode looks at the etymology of a particular word.

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