The naked truth

18 January 2011 | This 'n' that

Out with the truth: sauna camaraderie in the film Steam of Life. Photo: Oktober

Finnish men don’t usually open up about much, it’s generally thought, as they don’t like to speak about feelings.

But in the sauna, it’s different. Intimacies are revealed in its soft steam, by men who sit there quietly and give voice to the sorrows of their lives.

In Miesten vuoro / Steam of Life, a full-length documentary film by two directors, Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen which premiered in March 2010, Finnish men both talk and weep. They have gained considerable popularity among audiences in Finland and abroad.

A naked guy sits on a wooden bench in the steam or outside the sauna building (which could be an old wooden hut in the countryside, a modern city sauna or some odd construction serving the purpose) with a bottle of beer in his hand, and tells the man sitting next to him in earnest about his dead child, new wife, or the death of his mother: the great sorrows or joys of his life.

Water, fire, bare skin and no ornaments: vulnerability. He can be a war veteran or a younger man, lonely or happily married. But he talks, cleansing himself both physically and mentally.

Steam of Life has so far been seen by approximately 50,000 people in Finland, and the DVD has sold more than 28,000 copies. It is the first Finnish documentary to compete for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The Oscar nominees will be published on 25 January, with the award ceremony taking place at the end of February.

Steam of Life has won prizes both in Finland and abroad: in Tel Aviv, Warsaw, Pärnu in Estonia, Germany (DOK Leipzig where it won a Silver Dove) and Portugal. It received a Special Jury Mention at the Silverdocs documentary film festival in the United Sates and the Prize of the Interreligious Jury at the Visions du Réel festival in Switzerland. It will continue its tour of film festivals this year; see the trailer here.

The DOK Leipzig jury commented: ‘The film, deliberately set in an original Finnish situation – a sauna, opens a door into the intimate and hidden world of men’s fragility and vulnerability, turning the sauna into a place where naked truth is told by naked men. The film bends together tragic and comic….’

Mies ei puhu eikä pussaa is a saying; we’d translate this as ‘a Finn neither speaks nor snogs’, Finn referring to a male person. But the times, they are a-changing, it seems.

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