The Collective meditates on the boundaries of skiing
WORDS • SAM TAGGART
The sun disappeared hours ago. It never broke through the overcast sky—it just faintly glowed below the horizon, painting the scene with a muted whitewash that matched the slushy snow on the ground. Nighttime comes in mid-afternoon in Helsinki, Finland, wrapping the place in a lingering darkness spotted with twinkling lights from apartments, tram cars, office buildings and streetlamps. After dusk, the city quiets except for sidewalk stragglers and a youth hockey team practicing on a public rink in the park. The city is mainly flat and rests against the Baltic Sea with small, undulating hills dotting the landscape; only the most trafficked byways are plowed after a snowstorm and there’s a wetness that hangs in the air and clings to the ground. Further north, the country is spacious tundra, but Helsinki is a skier’s paradise for urban hits and transfers; handrails at every corner give rail-jockeys the chance to swipe, tap, press and express new visions amidst the nagging winter cold.
The sun disappeared hours ago, and the darkness ushered a bunch of skiers into the streets with cameras and shovels and, every so often, they’d let out a chorus of laughter and cheers, a grunt of frustration, yelps of triumph that echoed through the labyrinth of buildings; they were the Faction crew, shooting for The Collective, and they kept moving snow, ensuring their takeoffs were sculpted and landings forgiving before attempting a wall ride, rail slide or some other inspired combination of flips, spins and grabs. Lead filmmaker Etienne Mérel and filmer Julien Eustache positioned white-bulbed flood lights, humming generators and cameras for the shot. Photographer Alric Ljunghager roamed the scene like a shadowy beatnik grasping at life’s bigger picture and Stephan Sutton, another photo-man on the trip, stayed close to the action, getting a feel for optimal angles under the lights. Skiers Alex Hall, Antti Ollila, Will Berman and Corey Jackson visualized the skullduggery they’d attempt on their next hit.
With just two weeks in the Arctic Circle and limited daylight, the group adopted a militaristic mindset—a brotherhood bound by a common goal—that prompted their filming streak to run 20 days uninterrupted through Christmas and the New Year. The collective operated with the efficiency of a naval platoon without the ranks—every man an equal here. The troop earned a clip worthy of the final cut at every location, the athletes were firing, the filmmakers were finding the frame and the city provided empty streets that the Faction crew filled with grittiness, determination and a desire to turn imaginings into reality caught on camera.
The rental van with sliding doors and three rows of seats maintained a half-full tank of gas while the boys drove the city, scoping spots. Unkempt blonde hair hid under the wool beanie worn by Ollila, who grew up north of Helsinki, while he scrolled through his phone’s library full of images flashing by on the screen highlighting local “jibs”—spots worthy of a neck-straining second look that had the boys’ imagination running rampant, thoughts consumed by the next bout of contortion. As they putted along, they recognized spots already featured in movies and ski edits. “It was happening very often, like two or three times per day,” commented Eustache, on the number of aha! moments they had driving by the city’s sculpture gardens, handrails in the park, enormous fortress walls, ice-coated benches, stone steps and apartment entranceways. “If you’re not actually breaking it, you’re allowed to hit it,” explained part-time resident, Sutton. Ollila’s innate knowledge of the Finnish capital in tandem with new perspectives coming from the other riders “opened up new spots and ideas,” said Berman. Jackson, the newbie cowboy from Wyoming, continued, “I swear it… opens up a different side of your brain. You’re saying to yourself, ‘I need to start thinking like these other guys.’”
The sun disappeared hours ago. The local population is used to the darkness; long, cold, sometimes rainy, oftentimes misty winters are just part of living here on the edge of the Gulf of Finland. The trees hang frosted and heavy with leftovers from the last storm. Skiing and winter sports have a great tradition in this part of the world—the Scandos just bundle up and go outside—and all public lands are open for use by anyone. “At one point, a cop actually apologized to us… for wasting our time,” recollected Jackson about an affable policeman’s encounter with the crew, who lingered in the streets well past nightfall. “People don’t really care that we’re urban skiing. They let you do your thing as long as you’re respectful and you clean the spot after riding,” said Mérel. The Finnish policeman was one of only a few figures the crew encountered while out filming into the wee hours of morning, until the humming generators that powered the lights shut down and a solitary light above a doorway remained the only glow. Mainly isolated, the group had an unhindered, pinpoint focus on the film project and a martial reliance on one another for support, encouragement and inspiration. “We became a very tight and proud crew over what was accomplished; everyone was a really big part of it,” said Ljunghager. “Faction is really the only ski crew that’s doing something like this… doing a team movie is very unusual. These aren’t people that have chosen to be together; they’ve been picked by a manager. They are on the same team, going away to make this huge effort together—and that’s a really strong feeling.”
Faction had rolled its cameras into Helsinki once before, for its first athlete-focused assignment, This Is Home; but, it’s one of those places that leaves your mind wandering and your ski-heart yearning as an urban slider; the slight hills and ripples in the city’s terrain provide just the right amount of gravity to get going downhill, the Eastern Block architecture, bridges and railings a set stage begging to be played upon. It takes dedication and hours of handiwork to make each shot come to life—at one location the collective hauled trashcans packed full, maybe 80, 90 pounds each, with the white stuff from a nearby park and packed and sculpted and primped for four hours, so that their jump was good to hit, just how they imagined. But the shot we see in the film barely does the moment justice. How many attempts? Sometimes over 50 takes before everything lines up: The skiing, the style, the framing and the lighting all need a serendipitous connection. “When you do actually get the trick, it’s such an insane feeling. It’s one of the best things that I can get from skiing,” said Hall.
The sun disappeared hours ago. Every spot in town was closed because it was Christmas Day. Helsinki quiets for three days over the holiday as everyone huddles indoors with family, fires blazing and candles flapping tiny flames on the mantle; even the grocery stores and the cheap restaurants put up “closed” signs and the snowplow drivers take a day off, too. The Faction boys needed to find some grub after hours of filming a C-shaped, kinked rail by a parking lot. The only building with its lights on was a janky mall with linoleum floors and florescent lights that gave off a slightly odd yellow hue and a vending machine that had some processed snacks, bland crackers and sugary candy bars behind its glass; the banged-up crew posted inside with a few six-packs and the sweet chocolate nourishment they were able to scrounge out of the machine. Huddled together, half-asleep on the shopping center floor sporting a crazed twinkle in their eyes—crazed in that insatiable, inspired, artistic kind of way—the group was mistaken for hobos looking for a place to sleep, vagabonds on an urban crusade. Thrown out “in the most polite manner,” recalled Sutton, they retreated from the hushed, wintry city to his parents’ house for a midnight feast of holiday party leftovers, a necessary pitstop that greeted the company with a certain type of hominess warmth—the kind that’s usually lacking on the road.
Skiers look for it—or they can create it with their collective. Riding and riffing with the crew, the ones that champion the cause, that prop ‘em up, that help ‘em get to the hospital when they’re injured—on this trip, Berman dislocated his elbow on the first attempt of a ledge slide—that support ‘em without question, in every way. It has a profound effect; a Buddah-power, a poetic energy, that can rejigger a skier’s thoughts and approach and revitalizes the way they look at the world, enduring far beyond the act of skiing.