Steam of Life

Finnish men stripping in saunas to reveal the naked truth of their lives. Now that’s a hot doc—and dripping wet too.

11 mins read

Great sorrow can often lead to tremendous ideas and artful invention. But to reach epiphany, one might have to reach deep down in oneself to find the opening that leads back into light—sometimes in silence, other times in the company of a few careful listeners.

In hindsight of his current creative accomplishments, it’s lucky for Finnish filmmaker Joonas Berghäll that six years ago he found himself one very sad man. His catharsis was found in one of his country’s oldest healing traditions. And it is the emotional purging that surrounds this therapeutic ritual through which he created a sincere cinematic love letter to the men of his homeland. In the documentary Steam of Life, Berghäll and his co-director Mika Hotakainen explore a peculiar male vulnerability that swarms the hot box of sixteen different saunas across Finland, where tears and heartbeats are conducive to the thwacking rhythm of vihta (a whisk of birch twigs) on taut skin and the stinging sizzle of water on coals, or löyly, as the Finnish call it.

Like a mindful ear in a sacred place of whispers, Berghäll and Hotakainen’s camera listens to stories that encompass the farthest-reaching human emotions—from birth, estrangement, love and companionship, great loss and tragic death. In these confessionals—designed within the great architecture of caravans, teepees, cabins, rec centres and even a phone booth—the true steam of life exhales a mystical ether, or truth serum, that arouses the musings of all types of nameless Finnish men. Generally speaking, Finnish men are not regarded as the most loquacious of people, yet something happens inside these safe houses. “When you are naked with other people, your souls are very close,” says Berghäll. “The men in our film are naked, but their souls are also naked. That’s the reason they really feel the sauna is the place they can be totally themselves.”

The idea of shy Finnish men confessing their barest emotions with not a stitch to cover themselves was, at first, a contradiction Berghäll had to get used to. Six years ago, when he was going through a great bout of depression, Berghäll spent hours every Friday at a collective sauna in Tampere. Sooner than he expected, his sadness began to melt in the humidity of the recreation centre sauna. The support system of the sauna and its regulars seemed to cleanse the mind and rejuvenate the spirit far quicker than any therapist’s couch. Through all the sauna soul-talk, Berghäll recognized a certain dramaturgy that came not from action, but from the emotional turning points in every person’s life, the confliction of the human soul.

Steam of Life, however, chooses to focus only on the saunas where the male point of view is present and singular and female existence is formed only through the memory and reflection of men. Berghäll said the decision to make a film about Finnish men, dedicated to Finnish men (stated in a title card at the end of the film) came from two unique circumstances. During his time spent at the Tampere sauna, Berghäll noticed that the women would remain silent, whereas the men unravelled heavy topics in frank poetics, from under the steam to over their beers. The second came from the fact that in the last 15 years, Finland has placed a special emphasis on women and equality in the socio-political realm, leaving the emotional needs of men untended to. “When we discuss equality, we have to concentrate on both parts of the discussion. So for me, that’s a very important part of the film.”

Through several seasonal shifts, Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen filmed interiors of almost twenty saunas from the north to the south tip of their country. Berghäll remembers there being eight saunas for which he had particular reasons for scouting. But in some cases, one hot spot led to another and Berghäll and Hotakainen connected the dots between the remarkable histories of men. Sixteen saunas made the final cut of the film, with half of the stories resulting from spontaneous sauna-hopping.

In the development stage, Berghäll admits that a great deal of pressure regarding the film’s structure came from their mentors at EURODOC training initiative, based in France One commissioning editor tore the concept to pieces—how were they going to make a feature documentary about stagnant naked men muttering about life’s greatest tragedies? Fortunately, such questioning and criticism led straight to a stream of clarity that had been missing from the picture. After their EURODOC session in Nurmes, Finland, Berghäll reunited with Hotakainen and wrote the whole script in a straight shot.

Steam of Life effortlessly overcomes its fundamental problems of no direct action by using the spoken word to poetically balance tragedy with gratitude. These men are vivid storytellers whose attention to detail when speaking of hidden family violence, estranged daughters, war and violence, the births of their babies and the deaths of their wives and children, articulates a visual capacity where words are both seen and felt. The imagery is also eloquent and steady. Inside the saunas, warm flesh tones are contrasted by heavy shadows, segueing to exterior shots of the Finnish landscape whose vastness also appears to absorb the laments of men, just as Berghäll’s camera does.

The truth of the matter is that Berghäll gave very little direction in terms of conversation topics. The only central idea to the script of Steam of Life was to explore the various decisive moments, turning points in the lives of Finnish men, from birth to death. “The most important turning point is when you become a father, so we wanted to show that in the sauna,” says Berghäll. It’s no wonder that the discussion of such a rite of passage occurs more than once throughout the film. One of the film’s first scenes brings us into the locker room of a paper factory where four men sit in towels, beer-in-hand, and discuss the magic of a newborn baby. “I used to have empty pockets, now I have a family and empty pockets,” says another man, who turned from a life of crime into the life a family man.

Steam of Life has already gained international momentum—it premiered at Doc Point Helsinki as the opening film and will screen in competition at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. The film has also been nominated as one of the five films for the Doc Alliance Selection Award 2010, which will tour the five partner festivals that compose Doc Alliance Films.

When the filmmakers finally pitched Steam of Life, their Finnish counterparts were the hardest crowd to convince, with more support coming from other Scandinavian professionals. Berghäll recalls that Nordic Film & TV fell in love with the project immediately. “I want to see this man; he looks like a walrus but somewhere inside he has a heart. Are you sure you can open that heart?” asked one representative. After assuring the industry that they could indeed reach the sentimental centre of these introverted Finnish men, Berghäll and Hotakainen received the money to complete their film. In fact, it was an accumulation of six female commissioning editors that put forth the funding, and only one man. It seems the women were particularly curious about spying on the colourful contemplations that occur in the company of men.

So when we do see behind the veil or cedar door, and enter the locker room or quiet cabin, we meet the loneliness of men who are not afraid to shed many tears. And it’s through these tears that the vulnerability is pure and the gratitude arises from even the darkest calamities—a grace that is clean of self-pity and complaint, but rather cherishes the blessed brilliance of life. “Life is all emotion,” says one man who lost his young daughter in a tragic accident. “I don’t want to be alone. I want to share things.”

Steam of Life premieres in North America at the Hot Docs festival.

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