European Union Film Festival: Steam of Life speaks straight from the heart

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In Finland, spending time in a sauna isn’t a spa-related luxury, but a way of life. The Nordic country is home to some two million saunas. Many of them are located inside community centres and home basements; some in backyard sheds, dilapidated trailers, and even abandoned telephone booths. Armed with a fistful of birch tree branches—believed to improve blood circulation—and old frying pans to scoop and throw water onto hot coals, the Finns spend immeasurable amounts of time inside these sweltering wooden boxes.

Steam of Life looks at stories told by men inside saunas. Within these intimate spaces, Finnish men—alone and in groups—dissect some of their most cherished or repressed memories. Directed by Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen, who met at film school in Finland and previously worked together on the military documentary Freedom to Serve , Steam of Life had its Western Canada premiere during the 2011 DOXA Documentary Film Festival. In the 80-minute documentary, Berghäll and Hotakainen travel across Finland, following men into public and private saunas, and recording them as they speak straight from the heart.

One particularly memorable scene includes two woodcutters taking a break from their daily chores to enjoy a steam and a beer in an old trailer-turned-sauna. The men are visibly tired, but as each one recounts painful memories—one about years of abuse endured during his childhood; the other about placing his daughter in the care of his parents—it becomes clear that the markings of wear and tear on their naked bodies aren’t solely from the physicality of woodcutting. Not all of the stories told are unhappy, however. One man recalls falling in love again following the death of his wife, while another talks enthusiastically about an unlikely four-footed friend. No matter the type of the stories shared, one thing remains constant: Berghäll and Hotakainen’s lens is never invasive or disrespectful.

At first, North American audiences unaccustomed to the nonchalance of nudity in Europe may feel distracted by the lack of inhibition; however, the novelty of adult men, naked together, quickly wears off, and the dullness of sauna interiors provides the perfect backdrop to concentrate solely on the stories. What arises is a reminder that “masculinity” exists in many forms and that despite linguistic and experiential differences, empathy is universal.

Steam of Life screens at the Cinematheque on Monday (December 3) at 8:10 p.m. as part of the European Union Film Festival.

You can follow Michelle da Silva on Twitter at twitter.com/michdas.

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