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Review: 'Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys' is a vivid documentary

With the perseverance of a field anthropologist and the eye of a poet, documentarian Jessica Oreck traces a year of seasons in the stunning "Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys."

Her keenly observed portrait of reindeer herders in Finnish Lapland is no romantic pastoral; for all their wild beauty, the seasons can be tough viewing, in particular the fall days of slaughter. But like two recent documentaries about shepherds — "Sweetgrass," set in Montana, and "Hiver Nomade," set in the Alps — "Aatsinki" is a work of cinéma vérité of the highest order: vivid, immersive and unflinching.

The cowboys of the title are brothers Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki, members of a collective of herders. Oreck's fluent camera captures the rhythms of their days: the wrangling, branding and butchering, the shared campfires and solitude, the ritual preparation of what looks like very strong coffee. She's there for Santa's visit (from a nearby mountain) to the men's young children, catching the glow of electronic toys on their rapt faces.

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The Aatsinkis' story is one of compromise between tradition and modern-day realities. Helicopters, ATVs and snowmobiles are essential to their enterprise. A side business in winter-wonderland ecotourism helps to pay the bills, with deer in full antler pulling sleigh-riding visitors across the landscape.

The film raises complex questions about stewardship of the land and the relationship between humans and animals. It does so with a sure grasp of the nitty-gritty, but also with nothing less than awe at the spontaneous choreography of a herd or the uncanny pink light on the pines.

"Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys." No MPAA rating; in Finnish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. At Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.

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