The more I watch documentaries, the more I find that they, too, have genres and styles similar to fictionalized films.  There are docs that are all about the images (BARAKA), or docs that chronicle a harrowing journey (RESTREPO), or teach us about a place we’ll never visit (THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS), or expose a social problem (WAITING FOR SUPERMAN), or make us fall in love with our favorite band again (SHINE A LIGHT).  Thus, there are most definitely genres within documentaries.

As I  have begun to really understand this, I find myself trying to assign a genre to the documentaries I watch.  One of the best things about documentaries is that they are completely able to transcend these genre limitations to create something unique.  AATSINKI: THE STORY OF ARCTIC COWBOYS manages to take you to someone you’ve never been, watch a harrowing annual event, get to know a family, and yet do all of this with a minimum of spoken words (in at least 4 languages I counted).

Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki are brothers who herd reindeer (caribou in North America) above the Arctic circle in Finnish Lapland.   When the film begins we see them, along with other cowboys, bringing in the wild reindeer to be counted, tagged, and a few taken to the slaughterhouse.  This is their source of livelihood the same as any cattle rancher in the American West.  However, unlike the mechanized society that cattle ranching often is, this film shows a very personal connection to this profession.  We see a little of how they use helicopters to round up the animals, and some time at the slaughterhouse, where the same cowboys skin and butcher their charges.  Then we’re taken through some of the easy times – camping in 24 hour daylight, Christmas, and snowmobiling to get around the roadless areas.

Each of their actions, from notching a calf’s ear, to skinning an adult, to building a simple fire are done with the precision born of a lifetime of practice.  We see the Aatsinki’s families joining in during the spring round up as well – young kids, girls, catching the baby reindeer to get them counted.   The word lifestyle is often bandied about to be a stand in for all kinds of things – but the Arctic cowboy way of living – staying warm, building fires, etc. – is done with a minimum of waste, of animal or word, and by the end of this film you feel you understand a lot about their lifestyle.

I felt like I wanted more dialogue and more descriptions of things as we went through the film, but that would have been outside the norm for these men and their families.  Things were understood, and done as they had been done so many times before – the children learned by watching their parents, including how to have fun.  As with any great film, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so I hope I’ve conveyed some of the magic strangeness of getting to know a place I’ll likely never visit and a lifestyle I doubt I’ll ever completely understand, but  if the truth is in the telling, then AATSINKI: THE STORY OF ARCTIC COWBOYS found its truth.

AATSINKI: THE STORY OF ARCTIC COWBOYS is playing on Tuesday April 30 at 6pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Wednesday May 1, at 4pm at Scotiabank Theater, and Saturday May 4 at 4:30 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  (Official website)