Finnish film, “Steam of Life”: simple, powerful, revealing, refreshing

I went to see the Finnish documentary last night, “Steam of Life”.

It was very moving. Men sharing their deepest emotional experiences with other men, or sometimes just the camera, in a sauna.

The film is beautifully shot, highlighting the stark Finnish landscape – and apparently the Finnish obsession with saunas. There was an old car in the middle of a field which had been turned into a sauna; a camper trailer; a telephone booth; a tee-pee, and then the standard saunas in houses and backyards. Every city and town seems to have a sauna, and everyone can afford to treat themselves to a steam – even a man who was sleeping on bathroom floors.

But the most remarkable part of the movie was the stories these men told, and for the most part, the pain they carried around with them. One man had been banished from his home and was no longer allowed to see his child – a pain which had caused him to escape to the north where he lived in the woods and drank heavily. Eventually we find out his daughter is also is step-sister.

The stories are uniquely male – a military man coming to terms with his mother’s death, his masculinity, and the army, and what that has done to his life; a man who had lived a life of crime and drug abuse, turning his life around after meeting a woman and having a family.

Some of the stories have very few words, as in the one where two autistic men share a sauna. They are in their late teens, early twenties. We see their interaction: they swim in the river nude together, help each other, and then take a sauna together.

One simply says “It’s important to be honest.” And the other agrees. There is very little dialogue other than that, but their friendship and love for one another is palpable – and very moving.

A man with young twin girls recounts how he discovered that one of them had died, and tells his friend (yes, in the sauna) the story. He discusses how hard it was for him to deal with this as a man, having been brought up to hold his emotions in, and not to cry.

The filmmaker was somehow able to get these guys to open up on film, in a sauna, and in so doing, has revealed the vulnerabilities which all men carry around within them – no matter how big or tough the exterior.

It’s so refreshing to see men portrayed as having feelings and sensitivities, supporting one another, listening to one another as they share their inner feelings.

In the middle of the woods, near a river, in a hand-made tent sauna, a train engineer admits to his friend that despite his best efforts, he could not prevent his train from running over a man who had been trapped on the tracks many years ago. The man is still haunted by nightmares by the event.

After telling the story to his friend, he says “I don’t know why I told you that. It’s better not to talk about things like this.”

To which his friend replies, “It’s good to talk about things sometimes.”


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