Reach for the ski

Reach for the ski

By Michael Pickard
January 10, 2024

In production

Ski jumping gets the television treatment in a Finnish story about a young woman with ambitions to win gold at the Winter Olympics. Producer Antti Kaarlela talks DQ through the challenges of dramatising this soaring sport for Kriittinen piste (Critical Point).

When it comes to ski jumping, few nations have been as successful at the Winter Olympics as Finland, which has celebrated 10 gold medallists – and a dozen more silver and bronze winners – in the competition’s 100-year history.

Second only to Norway in the medal table, Finland’s heroes have included Matti Nykänen – a four-time gold medallist – Janne Ahonen, Antti Hyvärinen and Toni Nieminen.

Their success, and the sport’s popularity in Finland, are now the inspiration behind Kriittinen piste (Critical Point), a comedy drama about ski jumping that will debut locally in February.

Antti Kaarlela

“When I was growing up, ski jumping would be the winter sport that everybody follows,” producer Antti Kaarlela tells DQ. “In Finland, we used to have big-name ski jumpers who would dominate the World Cup like Janne Ahonen, and Toni Nieminen before him.”

“After that, the popularity of ski jumping has been going down in Finland so there are not a lot of ski jumpers actively jumping in Finland anymore. But when we thought about this, it just felt right that there could be a fresh take on ski jumping – and a lot of the best ski jumpers in Finland are now women.”

Suitably, the story follows Somali teenager Hodan, who has one goal: to win the Winter Olympics in ski jumping. After suddenly deciding to leave her home in Taivalkoski, where she is part of the national ski jumping team, she moves in with her father in Ylitornio and leaves the sport behind. But when she discovers an old ski-jumping hill, she partnes with a new coach, former pro jumper Seppo, to continue her training.

Produced by Kaarlela’s Whatevergroup and distributed by YLE Sales, work first began on the three-part series, which debuts locally in February, around four years ago. It is written by Kaarlela, Antti Kairakari, Aleksi Puranen and Naima Mohamud, and directed by Kaisa el Ramly.

But though broadcaster YLE quickly backed the project, a long development period saw Kaarlela’s initial ambitions for a long-running, multi-season series pulled into sharper focus.

“We thought it’d be some kind of longer show, but now it’s a miniseries with only three episodes,” he says. “For a long time, we were talking about the world [of the show], what kind of world we would set the story in and where in Finland. Then YLE wanted to guide us towards a limited series and condensing it to three episodes. That took a lot of rewrites.”

The changes meant whole characters and story arcs were cut from the show, as anything that wasn’t important to the central storyline came under intense scrutiny.

Kriittinen piste stars Fadumo Hersi as Hodan, a Somali teenager with Olympic ski-jumping aspirations

“It was a big change, for sure,” he continues. “But I’m really happy we went to the limited series. It wasn’t a direction to just do that. It was a question from YLE, who said, ‘How about we do it like this and we do a limited series and then we can move sooner with it?’ Then I thought, ‘Let’s cut the branches. Let’s do a limited series and do it now.’ I’m really happy with what we made because it really feels like a pinpoint of the story. It’s a really good story about the essence of going for your dreams and trying your hardest to reach what you dream of.”

The story introduces 19-year-old Hodan (Fadumo Hersi), who has been ski jumping since early childhood. Part of the national ski-jumping team, she runs into trouble in her hometown and flees to live with her dad in the town of Ylitornio, initially deciding to leave the sport behind her. But when she meets Seppo, he ‘accidentally’ becomes her new coach with ambitions to lead her to the Olympics, though his training methods aren’t exactly lifted from the textbook.

Notably, Hodan comes from a Somali background – a story element that Kaarlela says was “essential.”

“I would say the Finnish winter sports scene is very white and very middle class, so her coming from an immigrant background into the sport plays a big part of the story,” he explains. “That is a question we wanted to ask. The vision I had in my head when I when I originally pitched this idea to YLE was what Finland would be like if we actually had a woman from an immigrant background become an icon in a very iconic sport and be cheered by the big crowds and be the one we want to make Finland proud in winter sports.”

Hodan trains for the Winter Olympics with coach Seppo in Ylitornio, in Lapland

The fact Critical Point is built around ski jumping also sets its apart from its genre peers, with football, American football, basketball, boxing, baseball and motor racing, not to mention winter sports such as ice hockey and figure skating, all more familiar on the big and small screens.

Kaarlela says the series does tap into some of the tropes of sports dramas, with Hodan facing personal highs and lows and being supported by the motivational words of an ageing-but-inspiring coach. Yet Critical Point also seeks to disrupt these familiar motifs.

“We wanted to make a series where the wisdom that comes from the retired coach, for example, would be rooted in small-town Lapland,” he says. “It’s not the story you see in a big city that is set in New York or Helsinki or anywhere. It’s not that kind of a sports series. We wanted it to be original, to somehow feel like Lapland and somehow feel genuine. That’s what we wanted to go for.”

The biggest challenge facing Kaarlela and his production team when making Critical Point was clear from the outset – how they would film sequences where Hodan performs numerous ski jumps.

The production team filmed at real ski-jumping towers

“Well, we had to find a way to either do it down on the ground somehow, or to safely have the whole crew climb up to the tower [from which jumpers take off] and shoot there – and that’s what we actually did,” he reveals. “We did look into different possibilities of building a model down on the ground and shooting around that, and it would be easier to light. But then again, the whole building of it would consume time and money and it would be hard to make it as genuine as it would be up there, because Finland is fairly flat.

“We came to a conclusion that we can’t actually make it believable in a way, so apart from one shot, everything’s been filmed up on the real towers.”

The next question was how to make it look like Hersi was actually jumping through the air.

“That was tricky to answer, especially because we couldn’t find a stunt double who could actually jump. So the best female ski jumper in Finland, Julia Kykkänen, actually made all the jumps for all the females in the series. We realised that, ‘OK, maybe Hodan has a habit of lifting her scarf up in front of her face before she jumps,’ and that’s how we replaced her with the stunt double.

“We also had a construction up on the tower so that we could have Fadumo and the older men together at the top before she jumps. We built a rack where they stand, and then cut to the stunt doubles.”

Finnish ski jumper Julia Kykkänen doubled for Hodan in the jumping scenes

Olympic winner Niemenin also completed most of the stunt double jumps for the male characters, though in some cases he had to wear a body suit under his uniform. “That affects your balance and your feel when you jump, so those were the other kinds of issues we had to tackle.”

Filming for the ski jumps predominantly took place in two main locations – one in Kuusamo, close to Ruka in the central eastern region of Finland, which doubled for the hill set in Ylitornio in the series. The production also utilised a ski-jump stadium in Taivalkoski, south-west of Kussamo, which is used at the beginning and end of the series as the setting for the Finnish national championships.

“From the get-go, the YLE producer Pekka Ruohoranta and I wanted to have as much ski jumping as possible, like real, genuine jumps, so it was not an issue at any point or a question of whether to have ski jumping in the series,” Kaarlela says. “The only question was how? How do we really make it happen? Early on when we were in development, [fellow writer] Alexsi and I had a meeting with Toni and we interviewed him about ski jumping and tried to find out if it would be possible to get an actor to really jump themselves. Toni’s take on it was like, ‘No, nobody not coming down the tower before the age of five will ever come down the tower.’”

Blessed with beautiful weather during the shoot, which largely took place in spring last year, perfecting the ski-jump sequences proved to be the biggest headache facing the production. But should anyone else want to repeat Kaarlela’s ski-jumping feats – or try their hand at any sports drama – he would encourage them and their actors to get to know the sport in question as much as possible.

“Have them go up to the tower, have them train with real athletes and get them into the mood – but that’s not only about ski jumping, it’s about sport in general,” he notes. “Doing a show about professional sports is its own game in a way, like the people who do the sports, who train every day and train hard to make it into the Olympics. This is their whole life. It takes a lot of time and effort to make it that high in sport. That’s something that maybe the actors don’t understand in the beginning.”

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