Dancing To The End Of The Earth with ‘Fram’

In 2013, Alex went on a work trip to Svalbard – an archipelago roughly 1200km from the North Pole, that is inhabited by more polar bears than people, and in the winter is almost permanently dark. The experience was unreal – waking up for breakfast and seeing the aurora outside the window was one of many highlights there. The landscape is dramatic, rugged and remote, a beautiful wilderness that is largely untouched and unchanged since the early explorers discovered it.

While searching the internet for Scandinavian film festivals, we stumbled across a dance documentary called ‘Fram‘ which was filmed in Svalbard and so that caught our attention. We got in touch with one of the guys behind the piece, Thomas Freundlich, who gave us access to a screening of it. It is a fantastic piece of work, mixing themes of history, travel, exploration, contemporary dance, the human spirit and our drive to explore the unknown and push boundaries, and our connection with our environment and nature. We spoke to Thomas to find out more about the making of the film, filming in Svalbard, and the challenges that came with it.

Tells us a little more about yourself and who Lumikinos Productions are?

My name is Thomas Freundlich; I’m a filmmaker from Finland, and the co-author of the film Fram. My own background is as a dancer and choreographer, though to be honest, I don’t really dance a whole lot these days, as my work in recent years has focused more on being behind the camera. Lumikinos Production is my production company, specializing in audiovisual projects in the field of the performing arts. A lot of my day-to-day work includes filming, producing and editing performance captures and promo trailers for various dance companies, but I also do short films and documentary work.  

Thomas Freundlich

What lead you to the concept behind Fram?

Fram was created together with my best friend and closest artistic collaborator Valtteri Raekallio, with whom we’ve worked on dozens of projects over the years. Valtteri is one of Finland’s top contemporary choreographers, and as my own work in recent years has largely concentrated on dance for the screen, we have a pretty seamless collaborative flow by now. We usually start kicking around these ideas for a new project and it takes a while even to get the concept down on paper, but even at that early stage it feels like we’re somehow on the same wavelength in almost a telepathic way. 

Fram is a film for which we wanted to bring together a lot of elements that, on the surface, might seem very disparate. On one hand, we wanted to explore this parallel between arctic exploration and artistic pursuits. It’s of course silly to compare making a dance piece or film to skiing to the North Pole or sailing the Northwest Passage, but there are some recurring conceptual and philosophical similarities between the two fields.

Both in exploration and art, there is this idea that you always need to go further to find something new, at almost any cost, and even if what you are after really has very little intrinsic practical value. But somehow this kind of drive is just wired into us on a very deep level. 

Fram means “Forward” in the Scandinavian languages, and it’s also the name of one of the famous polar exploration ships, so we felt it was the perfect title for the film.  

The second aspect that we wanted to touch on was this idea of the Arctic as some sort of deserted wasteland, or a place that has no value until someone finds an economic, political, scientific or military use for it.

We wanted to examine the conceptual history of how these areas have been viewed in our wider cultural sphere, and as our own background is in dance, it was natural to use dance film as our medium of expression.

Finally, Fram is also a kind of road movie that just takes the viewer along the ride for our crazy voyage and hopefully brings them into our world as friends and filmmakers. We have a lot of fun working and travelling together, and in some sense our projects are just excuses to do stuff together in interesting places. 

You have an enormous amount of experience in both the independent dance industry and your work as a cinematographer/filmmaker – was filming Fram one of your biggest challenges in terms of the location of the film?

Yes, this was definitely one of the most challenging projects that I’ve ever done, just in terms of the logistics and practicalities that went into it. Quite early on, we decided on this “dogma” that for the expedition part of the filming, we would have no external film crew or logistical support.

“So the two of us were literally dropped off on an uninhabited island in the middle of the Arctic Ocean by boat and then picked up a week later. Funnily enough, some people have watched the film without realizing that it really was just the two of us on the island!” 

How long were you based out in the wilds of Svalbard and how much preparation went into surviving the elements out there?

Our total time in Svalbard was approximately two and a half weeks, with about four days spent at the abandoned mining town of Pyramiden and a week on the island of Prins Karls Forland. The rest of the days were taken up by the boat trips as well as some in-between-days and pickup shoots in and around the town of Longyearbyen. 

There was definitely a huge amount of preparation that needed to be done, especially since the island on which we were filming was outside the tourist management area in which it is possible to trek without getting a special permit from the Governor of Svalbard. This includes having stuff like satellite phones, emergency beacons and search & rescue insurance on hand.

And of course the polar bears are something that needs to be taken very seriously, from carrying firearms outside the settlements to knowing and practicing the appropriate engagement protocols, and protecting your camp.

Valtteri and I have trekked quite a lot in the Nordics as well around the world, and we did a similar field trip for a smaller-scale dance film in Svalbard back in 2008, so we had some experience of travelling independently in the field on the islands. But of course with the boat charters and travelling outside the management area, the level of complexity on this project was an order of magnitude greater. 

Another challenge was that we got hit by some really nasty weather while on location. Svalbard is supposed to be an arctic desert with almost no rainfall, but for one reason or another, we basically spent several days holed up in a rainstorm in our tent.  Could be climate change, as I do know it’s been hitting the islands really hard in the last few years.      

You have been visiting some festivals with the film – how has the piece been received? When will the movie be available for the public to see?

So far, we have been fortunate to have the film selected for about two dozen festivals around the world, and the reception has been very enthusiastic. Though of course there is always this observational selection effect at play – if someone doesn’t like your piece, they usually won’t come up to you and tell you. 🙂 But we do feel that the finished film is very close to the one that we set out to make in the beginning, so if people around the world do respond to it, it’s a really gratifying feeling. 

At the moment, due to our broadcast licencing agreements we are unable to release the film for general online viewing, but perhaps at some time in the future, we might be able to consider this again. If someone is interested in seeing the full-length film through a private link, feel free to get in touch and we’ll do our best to arrange this.     

What have you got lined up next?

We actually have a couple of new documentary projects in the works with Valtteri – no Arctic travel planned this time but probably a bit of a similar approach, fusing documentary narrative and dance-based artistic stuff. Also, the live performance captures seem to be picking up a bit again despite the COVID-19 situation, so things are looking pleasantly busy for the upcoming months. 

What have you been watching, reading, and listening to recently? Any recommendations?

For recent films that I finally had the chance to catch up on, Joker, 1917 and Blade Runner 2049 made an impact. Peter Englund’s book The Beauty and the Sorrow: An intimate history of the First World War hit hard as a mix of fictional narrative and historical research, and it complemented 1917 very well.

My reading list tends to gravitate towards non-fiction and science stuff so other recent (re)reads that I enjoyed were Digital Apollo by David A. Mindell on the technical history of the Apollo moon program’s control systems, and Quantum by Manjit Kumar on the history of quantum theory. Of new Nordic/Finnish indie music artists I’ve come across, Elisa Kota was impressive with her voice and well-crafted songs (though sung in Finnish). 

Finally, what is your tip of the day?

Observe what are the things that, when you do them, you don’t want to be anywhere else doing anything else. Take steps to arrange your life so that you do at least a little bit of whatever that something is every day. Fifteen minutes a day is 100% more than zero.  

Interview by Alex & Claire Minnis

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