Editor's Note: Almost Ablaze will be available on iTunes tomorrow, and to celebrate, we'll be releasing the entire Sarajevo segment for FREE right here on Tetongravity.com. In the meantime, enjoy the crazy true story behind the segment below..
Olympic slopestyle gold medalist Joss Christensen, throwing a backflip tail over the decrepit and barren landscape over the Sarajevo Olympic podium. TGR photo.
Joss Christensen recoiled violently as the dog sank its teeth into the newly minted gold-medalist’s ankle. Still relaxed from watching the sun go down over Sarajevo, Christensen felt his flesh tear as the beast gave a final shake before letting go.
Quickly shuttled away to find medical attention, it was at the infirmary that Christensen received the bad news that he’d come to the wrong hospital; he’d have to try another hospital across town, as this one did not have the right set of booster shots. For a city crawling with feral dogs, Joss and the rest of the crew found it oddly difficult to find a rabies vaccine, but little in Sarajevo comes easy, either for residents or visitors.
4bi9's Mike McLeod captures a low point in the Sarajevo shoot for TGR's Almost Ablaze. Photo courtesy of Mike McLeod.
Thus it was for Joss Christensen, Karl Fostvedt and Chris Laker when they went on location in the Bosnian capital city to film a one-of-a-kind urban segment for TGR’s Almost Ablaze. Fresh off the gold-medal podium in Sochi, Christensen got to witness the Sarajevo Olympic venue 30 years past its glory days.
Sochi was criticized for its hastily-built and exuberant infrastructure, whose lack of potential for long-term use barely justified the environmental degradation its construction wrought. The now-dilapidated venues in Sarajevo, which hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, were marked by disuse and destroyed by war, provoking eerie parallels to the criticisms made of Sochi’s future. With Oslo recently withdrawing its bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, the trip validated plenty of the concerns that have caused a decline in public support for hosting the Winter Games.
Time and disuse was not, however, the only malefactor that had degraded the Sarajevan landscape since Jure Franco brought Yugoslavia its first Winter Olympic medal in the giant slalom of the ’84 Games. In the early ‘90s, Slobodon Milosevic, answering the call of Serbian nationalism, seized power. The Serbian people wanted all of Yugoslavia for Serbs, and this meant seizing territory and murdering ethnic minorities.
Joss and crew enjoyed the sunset over Sarajevo from this cemetery shortly before his run-in with a mangy beast. Mike McLeod photo.
At the very heart of former Yugoslavia, Bosnia found itself in a bloody struggle fought between Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. Muslim militias entrenched themselves in central Sarajevo while the ethnic Serbs, backed by the entire Yugoslav army, took the high ground around the city and proceeded to shell the metropolis for over four years. “There really isn’t one building in Sarajevo,” Mike McLeod, originally of 4bi9 Productions, mused following his trip to Bosnia, “...unless it’s a new building, that isn’t scarred by war.” The steep banked concrete corners of the former Olympic bobsled track, on a hill overlooking the city, even provided refuge for Yugoslavian artillery batteries, who carved out holes in the sides of the track so their guns could fire down into the city.
Karl Fostvedt sends a 360 inside tail over the step-down into the tranny of a disused shed in the heart of Sarajevo. TGR photo.
In scheming up the locations for Almost Ablaze, TGR Co-Founder Todd Jones and Head of Physical Production Greg Epstein aspired to create a different type of urban segment that would showcase the raw quality of a forgotten cityscape. “We wanted something gritty,” Epstein said, “Not just another urban segment from Salt Lake City.”
We wanted something gritty.” Epstein said, “Not just another urban segment from Salt Lake City.
As the vetting process for a location began, McLeod floated the idea, amongst several, of shooting the segment in Sarajevo. Fast forward a few months, and Joss Christensen had a gold medal around his neck and was looking to go on a trip somewhere a contest would never take him, and expressed interest in the trip along with Karl Fostvedt and Chris Laker, whose combined raw talent in the urban game was renowned. The stars aligned, and the shot-callers at TGR made the decision to send the crew to Bosnia.
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Long before this chain of events unfolded, McLeod had discovered an underground scene in Sarajevo immersed in the culture of action sports. A YouTube video of a Bosnian biking the ruins of the Olympic bobsled track initially got his attention, and after further digging, he realized there was a whole gang of local Bosnians around Sarajevo that were charging hard in all kinds of sports. Intrigued, McLeod continued to scour the depths of Facebook until he finally decided to reach out and contact the mysterious Sarajevan directly.
Known to his friends as Dzoni—later dubbed “Mahalo John” by the Americans, Dzoni was one of the first snowboarders in Bosnia and had hand-built the first box in the country to slide with his friends. “He ended up being the Bosnian Red Bull guy,” McCleod said. “Basically, he’s the dude who drives around all of the Balkans and throws huge raves. He got an old Serbian military truck, which he refurbished and built a DJ tower in the back.”
Fitting the profile, McLeod had found his guy.
Mahalo John in all his glory—taking a moment to reflect on the finer things in life, like fresh towels and vodka. Mike McLeod photo.
On the ground as their Bosnian guide, logistics expert, and party liaison, Mahalo John was able to offer access and open doors that would have otherwise remained forever closed. Resourceful in a way that only a street education can make you, Mahalo John and his friends grew up watching people murder each other, bearing witness to the violence and depravity that had engulfed their home.
In the aftermath of this upbringing, many Sarajevans are hardened into having less regard for their own personal safety—making them totally nuts in the realm of action sports. “Those guys are rowdy as hell,” McLeod noted. Due to an upbringing marked by war and followed by stagnating prospects, “All the kids doing action sports over there are a little bit harder than all of us.” One Bosnian mountain biker even had his leg blown off by a land mine as he dug out a new downhill trail near Sarajevo.
Christensen staring pure evil in the face, and living to tell the tale. Mike McLeod photo.
Compared to explosions or being shot at, taking a nasty fall just doesn’t seem so bad. “They loved falling,” Mike said after getting in some downhill biking with locals on a return trip this summer. “They’re just super high-intensity.”
Dzoni was already familiar with TGR films, and as the first person in the country to build and slide a box on a snowboard, was well familiar with the DIY process and inventiveness needed to make jibbing happen in the Balkans.
The team prepares a feature at what used to be the Hotel Igman, which housed athletes during the '84 Games before being converted into a military base during the conflicts that followed. Mike McLeod photo.
To film a ski segment, you need snow. In the Balkans this past winter, that was a problem. As in, it was the worst winter in 30 years. In the preliminary stages of production, they’d met fierce resistance from the local ski area reps lamenting the lack of snow. “All the guys in marketing there were old-fashioned—no clue about where the current state of skiing or snowboarding is, and they weren’t receptive to what we were doing, nor did they help us at all. They didn’t even care that an Olympic gold-medalist was coming to Bosnia,” McLeod explains. “Everyone was like ’There’s no snow! there’s no snow!’ and I tried to convey, ‘That’s fine, but I think there might be some snow in your country, and if there’s some snow, we can do this.’”
Mahalo John gave them hope, though, driving up the access road to the top of one of the local ski hills to snap a photo of a pile of snow still remaining up high. The shoot was on.
Chris Laker spins above the snowless former Olympic podium in Sarajevo. TGR photo.
Once in the city, the crew dispatched Mahalo John to find a means of transporting the white stuff. Through some back channeling and networking, he was able to find a friend of a friend who knew some old villagers with a big-ass construction vehicle. “They were just some village dudes that had this truck; we paid ‘em $70 a load. They had no idea what we were doing, but they were all about it.”
Crawling up muddy cat-tracks while huffing cigarettes in an old Soviet-era lorry, the crew soon located all the snow they needed. Load by load, over the course of days, they moved it down the hill to the Olympic venues–the old athlete quarters, podium, bobsled track, and even the heart of the city center.
Ripper and master feature builder Karl Fostvedt takes off his boots in a bombed out building–no boot heaters in sight. Mike McLeod photo.
Once the hits were shoveled and dialed, it was time to film. Initially, they couldn’t get enough speed for the jumps because the winch they were using was an archaic and underpowered wakeboarding setup sent from Slovenia. Frustrated and in the mood for innovation, they decided to resort to plan B. Once again, Mahalo John came to the rescue. “We used Mahalo John’s car to do tow-ins for the features,” McLeod said, “And we ended up just pretty much driving his car into the ground.”
We used Mahalo John’s car to do tow-ins for the features," McLeod said, "And we ended up just pretty much driving his car into the ground.
Filling out the ranks, perennial crushers Karl Fostvedt and Chris Laker joined Christensen to showcase a unique urban onslaught on an eerily decrepit landscape originally dedicated to the highest feats of athleticism. As the completed segment well illustrates, the guys had their hands full with a unique and diverse collection of urban terrain, both at the Olympic venue and in the inner part of Sarajevo.
Chris Laker jibs off the former bobsled course at the Sarajevo venue. TGR photo.
All three of the guys unleashed on the newly converted gold medal podium, reasserting dominance over the decommissioned champion’s block with cork 900’s, rodeos, and a gorgeous backflip tail from Christensen. They also managed a step-up onto and then off of the decrepit lobby awning of the former Hotel Igman–which served as a military base during the war–along with jibs on the bobsled track and step-down gaps and handrails in the middle of the city without a lick of snow anywhere in sight beyond the meager patches allotted the skiers for take-offs and landings.
“It wasn’t ideal at all,” Mike said, reflecting on the crew’s hard-won shots for the movie segment. “It was really shitty, actually–the process was insane to get what we got on that trip.” So the final segment, which contains some seriously smooth jibs despite the copious obstacles facing all involved, can only be appreciated with that much more respect than your average jib segment shot in Salt Lake City or New England.
A grin worth a thousand words—Chris Laker enjoys one of Mahalo John's "get-togethers" in Sarajevo. Mike McLeod photo.
During the shoot, Mahalo John led the athletes and cinematographers, including AJ Dakoulas and Freeskier Senior Contributor Nate Abbott, to one of his local get-togethers. Christensen, Fostvedt, and Laker, along with the rest of the crew, made their way through seedy backstreets to the warehouse where the party was heating up. Thumping house beats greeted them through exposed sections of the building that were missing from a yesteryear bombardment. No strangers to debauchery, the crew settled right in and were immediately welcomed as family by this group of young Sarajevans, who shared so much in common with guys like Fostvedt, Christensen, and McLeod, despite having had youths marked by conflict and seething animosity.
Sotally tober, Joss receives a kiss from a mysterious Bosnian beauty. Mike McLeod photo.
Fresh off a gold medal win in Sochi, Joss gets an appropriate medal celebration at the Sarajevo podium–no Wheaties or Today Show BS here, folks! Mike McLeod photo.
While getting in with Sarajevo’s underground youth culture had been smooth sailing, dealing with any official figures provided road block after road block. In addition to the complete lack of support from local ski area marketing staff, McLeod still needed to acquire archival footage, both from the ’84 Olympics and the conflict that riddled the ‘90s, from the National TV Station of Bosnia for the final segment. The gatekeepers of this material were a pair of Bosnian brothers working as assistants in the state television station that had for years accumulated historic footage of the country with the express purpose of illegally licensing it to TV stations around the world. In a country with such limited formal opportunity, illicit side businesses like these are almost expected.
Last summer, months after wrapping the shoot and during a break in a separate project he was working on in mainland Europe, McLeod traveled back to Sarajevo to get the film by hand after being stonewalled in every other means of communication with the station. After leveraging a mutual contact, Mike finally got a TV station executive on his side, who in turn pushed the brothers to play ball with McLeod.
In the depths of the subterranean TV compound, McLeod found himself in a five by ten-foot wooden room behind a beta player, still lacking a 16-millimeter projector to watch the reels that filled the room. There, in the tiny film archive, the Bosnians sat McLeod down, and over the course of two days, twenty cups of Turkish coffee, and a lot of cigarettes, they dove him down the rabbit hole of Bosnian history as they pored over film reels from years past.
Most of the footage from the segment in Almost Ablaze, with few exceptions, was shot around the retired Olympic venues. But originally, the crew had aspired to shoot a few more locations in the center of downtown Sarajevo. The Miljacka River, winding its way through the middle of the city, is blessed with numerous rainbow-railed bridges that would make any jibber’s mouth water. Early on, the guys selected one of these rails to shoot in the segment. It sat directly in front of the bridge where Franz Ferdinand, the expected heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was shot by a Serbian assassin, directly provoking the start of World War I.
Despite lack of snow and uncountable local obstacles, the crew managed to put together a truly impressive urban segment layered with a story few jib edits get to relate to. Joss jibs Hotel Igman. TGR photo.
The opportunity to jib along the avenues of world history was too good to pass up, so the team began delivering snow to the site with the assistance of a pair of Mahajo John’s speed-addled friends, who hand-shoveled snow into the back of the rental van at an absolutely furious pace, fully jacked to be participating in this guerrilla mission in the middle of the night. “Finally, we got down at about 3 AM, unloaded snow at this bridge, slept for two hours, then went to try and set up this rail—and it started pouring rain,” recalls McLeod. “The Monday morning traffic jams kicked off, and the streets on both sides of the rail were the busiest streets in the city. Then a tramcar came barreling down the street and just plowed through the winch rope, snapping it clean in half.” It was the one mission they couldn’t win. “We were so beat up, so exhausted, and just totally defeated after that. We just wanted to go home.”
Then a tramcar came barreling down the street and just plowed through the winch rope, snapping it clean in half." It was the one mission they couldn’t win. "We were so beat up, so exhausted, and just totally defeated after that. We just wanted to go home.
A shirtless Karl Fostvedt, filmer AJ Dakoulas, Freeskier Senior Contributor Nate Abbot, KKK, Joss Christensen, and Chris Laker–pose hard, real hard, on the set of the Sarajevo urban shoot. Mike McLeod photo.
It may well have been a fitting end to a trip to a country that has seldom lent happy endings to any of its recent stories. While the imagery and the tricks produced were beautiful, putting them together in the context of Sarajevo’s past and present lends the final images a sense of haunted beauty that few TGR ski segments have ever matched.
TGR's Almost Ablaze goes on sale on iTunes tomorrow, and along with its iTunes release, we'll be putting up the entire Sarajevo segment from the movie, for FREE, right here on Tetongravity.com. Stay tuned...