Filmmaker Renan Ozturk wanted to give Arctic a voice in new Nat Geo special

"I want to show what is at stake because it is this huge part of the world that is going to change more than almost anywhere else," Ozturk said about "Explorer: Lost in the Arctic."

The documentary "Explorer: Lost in the Arctic" premieres on Disney+ and Hulu on Friday. Photo courtesy of Nat Geo
The documentary "Explorer: Lost in the Arctic" premieres on Disney+ and Hulu on Friday. Photo courtesy of Nat Geo

NEW YORK, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Filmmaker and photographer Renan Ozturk says his new National Geographic documentary special, Explorer: Lost in the Arctic, is meant to show how this part of the world is equally breathtakingly beautiful and treacherous.

Set to premiere Friday on Hulu and Disney+, the film follows Ozturk and his fellow extreme rock/mountain climber Mark Synnott as they attempt to find the tomb of Sir John Franklin, the 19th-century British captain who disappeared with a crew of 129 men while on a quest to navigate the Northwest Passage trade route.


"I felt like it was really important to let the Arctic itself be a character in the film because it was an opportunity for a lot more people to understand what that landscape is," Ozturk told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.

"I'm not necessarily trying to make it seem dangerous or anything," he added. "But just show it for what it is -- some of the raw beauty, the wildlife that exists up there, how some parts of it are still completely untouched and the Inuit [people] have kept it the same."


Ozturk hopes viewers appreciate the region and understand how humans have impacted it over the last century.

"I want to show what is at stake because it is this huge part of the world that is going to change more than almost anywhere else as it does open and becomes the shipping lane Franklin thought it was going to become and tourism and resource extraction increases," he said.

"Having the landscape itself have a voice, so to speak, is something that is always important in all of these [nature] films, but maybe this one more than most."

The trip started out as a personal dream of Ozturk and Synnott to sail from the East Coast of the United States to the Arctic.

"We are professional climbers, but I think we discovered over time that climbing isn't everything," Ozturk said.

"You want to find meaningful stories to tell and ways for people to find their way into understanding these places culturally and historically, and Mark was the one who had done research on the [Lost on] Everest mystery story, which is really similar, and this is in that same vein."

Ozturk said meeting Synnott changed his life.

"I didn't know anything about all of this adventure stuff. When I was an undergrad, Mark [presented] a slideshow at my school," Ozturk recalled.


"I later sought out that same lifestyle and climbed with him on all of these expeditions around the world and now have done a lot of these Nat Geo stories," Ozturk added.

"What makes him a really great collaborator is his level of research and care, and, obviously, his skills as a writer and expedition leader."

Despite their harrowing feats and extraordinary accomplishments, Synnott doesn't take himself too seriously.

"There's a level of self-deprecating humor that's just fun to be around when you are in these trying situations," Ozturk said.

Making Lost in the Arctic had distinctive risks and rewards because Synnott was captaining his own fiberglass boat, which was "a little sketchy" in the icy waters of the Arctic, according to Ozturk.

"That boat he built up from scratch for this journey and learned how to become a big ocean sailor. That boat was like a member of his family," the filmmaker said.

"He was just scared the whole time that something was going to happen to the boat," Ozturk added. "There is like a level of stress and responsibility beyond anything we'd ever done. We were pushing the safety margins a little more than normal."


Ozturk also had his hands full this time, crewing the boat while finding time to capture the adventure on film.

"Normally, when we do these film projects, there are five to 10 people who create the show," he said.

"We just had myself and one other guy and, on top of that, Mark said, 'You guys can't focus on the filming. You know that, right? The entire time, you're first priority is keeping the boat above the water, and every six hours, for four months, whether it is midnight, 2 a.m. or 6 a.m., if your watch comes, you are looking out for ice and not shooting.'"

That grueling schedule took its toll on Ozturk.

"You descend into a sleepless delirium where you never see darkness and you are shooting when other people are on watch and the light is good," he said.

"It puts you in a pretty crazy place, mentally. That was really challenging."

Ozturk said he never doubted whether the project would be worth it in the end, especially when Jacob, an Inuit man with tremendous knowledge of the region, joined them on the boat and acted as a guide and hunter for the film crew.

"That was a thing that nobody from his village had done, and it added this level of meaning to the trip because we got an [Inuit] perspective of the North," he said.


"If he wasn't there, I think I would have questioned being just a bunch of White guys sailing on a boat through the Arctic."

Modern technology and the desire for comfort have had definite impacts on adventure and exploration.

"We've got satellite devices. We can communicate anywhere on Earth and you can press the SOS button on your Garmin. ... You can get a HeliRescue," Ozturk said.

That's one of the things that attracted the team to this adventure.

"Even with all of the climbing trips we've done -- like Everest -- it's really hard to get that remote," Ozturk said.

"On this, even if you hit the full-on HeliRescue button, you're probably going to die before the helicopter gets there because it is going to take a week or more and it's going to be really tricky to find you," he added.

"This expedition is us testing ourselves in more of an old-world way, even though we have the best technology known at this point in time for safety. We still have some of the same challenges as Franklin."

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