Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What is a Finnish Man? 4

still from Steam of Life / Miesten Vuoro. image source

Twenty eight characters from Philip, one of my male respondents: “Have you seen Steam of Life?” sent me out into the web to find some answers.

Steam of Life is a new documentary (March 2010) directed by Mika Hotakainen and Joonas Berghȁll. Its Finnish title, Miesten Vuoro (The Men’s Turn), speaks more literally about it as a film about Finnish men’s turn to explain themselves in their own words. The filmmakers travelled across Finland filming men in saunas (one in a converted telephone booth!) baring not only their bodies but their souls. The men speak from the heart about deeply personal issues that they may not so easily share in everyday life with women or other relatives.

In a Finnish language trailer I found online on MeFeedia, Hotakainen explains that they set out to explore Finnish men’s landscape of the soul. The men talk about family, fatherhood, love, pain and other deep even dark topics (addictions, death). Although touching on difficult areas, Hotakainen explains that the film is hopeful.

Hotakainen believes the sauna is a democratizing place free of hierarchies where men enter on equal ground.

I’m not sure if I completely agree with him on the last point as I am sure young Finnish men today have not escaped the social compulsion for six-pack abs and buff bodies, and do not leave body (or class) differences behind the sauna door anymore than we leave them behind when we enter the web, but I do agree that the steam of the sauna can do magic and heal divisions and fissures, both within and without.

Hotakainen tells the viewer to listen, just listen to people telling you about their lives.

The fall edition of New World Finn also has two short write-ups of Steam of Life taken from the web. It was interesting for me to learn one of the strategies used to equalize the power relations of the filmed and the filmer, enabling a better rapport and intimacy: the film crew were naked too. In some excerpts below, one of the filmmakers explains in Finding My Way in the 'Steam of Life' why he set out to make the film and the methods used to film inside hot saunas:

"My reason for making this movie was very simple: I never met my father. Because I've never had a father as a role model of a man, I thought that, through this movie, there was the possibility to find a “Finnish man,” my father, and also myself.

I got this idea in 2005. I was a little depressed, and my girlfriend told me I should do something about it. She pointed out that one thing always makes me happy — sauna. Especially one specific sauna, which is the oldest public sauna in Finland. Whenever I went there, it always made me feel better.

So I went there every Friday and started to listen to the men’s stories.


I think it was the right time for Finnish men to speak openly about their emotions. They didn't even need any help or persuasion, just a chance to talk knowing that somebody really wanted to listen. They were ready to open up their hearts to us.


Also, what helped our characters to talk was being naked. Of course they were nude in saunas, as our tradition is, but so was the whole filming crew working naked as well. We were like one big family supporting each other. When there was a film-loading break, we directors went to take sauna with our characters. And when the camera was ready, we continued shooting.

It was necessary to prepare carefully for filming. The movie was shot on s16 mm Kodak stock; digital cameras wouldn't have worked in the saunas’ 75–85 degrees Celsius. First, camera equipment with lenses was warmed up on a lower bench of the sauna. After 20
minutes, when the equipment was heated up enough, we put it on the upper bench till the camera and lenses were as warm as the sauna itself, about 85 degrees Celsius (185 degrees Fahrenheit). After that, we were ready to start filming. We had to heat the camera and lenses to the temperature of the sauna to avoid mist condensing on to the lenses.

Sometimes, we would film for four hours in the hot sauna. It was tough — our cinematographer almost fainted twice because of the heat, for example — but it was also a great experience."

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