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"Steam of Life" Exposes Finnish Men @ Hot Docs 2010

Below is my interview with STEAM OF LIFE directors, Joonas Berghäll(right) and Mika Hotakainen(left). The documentary is part of the Breaking The Machismo Myth series of films that are screening at Hot Docs 2010. Other films in the series are Ito-Diary of an Urban Priest, Freetime Machos, and Portrait of a Man. STEAM OF LIFE documents intimate life stories told by men as they sit in a variety of saunas throughout Finland. Men are often praised for their physical strength, but I want to praise the men in this film for having the courage to share their emotions with us. I love this film. Monday, May 3, 7:00pm, Isabel Bader Theatre. Wednesday, May 5, 4:00pm, The ROM Theatre.

donna g: The title “Steam of Life” probably refers to more than one element of the film, but I am curious to know if one of the reasons behind the title is the fact that Finnish women used to give birth in saunas.

Joonas and Mika: It is true that Finnish women used to give birth in saunas and, of course, the name "Steam Of Life" fits into that event, but in this case the idea is also much more. We feel that the name represents more closely to the content of he film. This film reveals turning points from several men's lives. We are all the time dealing with strong issues of human life in the warm steam of sauna. Therefore, the English name refers more to the content of the film in our perspective.

donna g: In many documentaries when people are introduced there is a caption that shows their name. Why did you choose not to identify your subjects?

Joonas and Mika: We thought that despite the many characters and different stories this film talks about life. From that perspective, it seemed pointless to underline the characters with their names. What they are telling is more important than what their names are.

donna g: For the most part, each sauna scene seems to have a Speaker that reveals a very personal story and a Listener that reacts to what he is being told. How were these scenes set up? How much was revealed to the Listener about what he would be hearing?

Joonas and Mika: Nothing was revealed to the "listeners". We shot conversations from which we selected the most suitable stories for the film. Many of the stories shot, were surprises even for us and surely to the men listening as well. Of course, in many cases we knew what kind of stuff would be coming, but still surprises occurred.

donna g: The theme of the documentary touches on how difficult it is for Finnish men (and men in general, I think) to talk about their feelings. One man mentions the fact that he didn’t know how to act when something emotional occurred because he had never been taught how. You are much younger than the men in the film, could you relate to this way of thinking or have things changed for your generation?

Joonas:Yes, they have changed a lot in general, but I have to say that for me it is difficult to talk about my feelings to women. I can send deep and emotional letters or sms messages or prepare a romantic dinner, but talking about my feelings is difficult for me. There are many ways to show your emotions to your loved ones, I'd prefer more deeds than words—like the scene where the Samí man tells how his grandfather showed his love to his wife by chopping wood.

Mika:I think the attitudes are slowly getting better in terms of Finnish men showing their emotions. Finnish men have had to carry the burden of being strong and not to show emotions or tenderness for a very long time. I believe one reason for that has been our bloody history with civil war and the Second World War, which traumatized that whole generation of men.

Movements for women’s rights have been very strong in Finland for a long time and it has influenced strongly the way the media has treated men, and also the way men have behaved. I believe that my generation has been the first where girls and boys have actually been friends from a very young age and see each other as equals. When I watch today's teenagers, I can see the development going further all the time. I strongly believe that the Finnish men today are brought up to confront their emotions, sad and happy.

donna g: I expected to be taken from sauna to sauna (and there appears to be saunas everywhere is Finland!), but I did not expect to see such beautifully framed landscapes. Why did you decide to include these scenes, and how did you select the music that accompanies these wonderful vistas?

Joonas and Mika:We thought it would be necessary to create so-called breath-taking breaks between the saunas. For that purpose we wanted to make these landscape sequences which are not only landscapes, but act as a symbolic reference to the stories heard and emotions experienced.

All the music in the film is composed precisely for it. The music plays an important role in the film. It slowly develops during the film towards the end climax, which we don't want to reveal.

donna g: I couldn’t help wondering about shooting a film in a hot sauna. How did you deal with this technical aspect of your film?

Joonas and Mika:It was necessary to prepare filming carefully. The movie was shot on s16 mm Kodak stock. Digital cameras wouldn't have worked in 75-85 Celsius degrees saunas. Camera equipment with lenses were warmed up on a lower bench of the sauna. Then after 20 minutes (when the equipment was heated up enough) we put it on the upper bench, until the camera and lenses were as warm as sauna itself—about 85 Celsius degrees (185 Fahrenheit). We had to heat up the camera and lenses as warm as the sauna was, to avoid mist condensing the lens. After that, we were ready to start filming. Sometimes we were filming 4 hours in the hot sauna; our cinematographer almost fainted twice, because of the heat. Filming was a tough but still a great experience.

donna g: The story about the man who took in the orphan is quite original and I wish I could ask you to comment, but I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t yet seen the film. I do want to ask you about the Santas. Where did you find them?

Joonas and Mika:The orphan scene is already been titled by Finnish Film Foundation as a part of Finnish film history. But let's not reveal anything else about it. We found all the Santas in one place; they all worked for the same Santa rental agency. The scene with the Santas was shot on Christmas Eve (right after the Santas' work day ended) in the oldest working public sauna in Finland.

donna g: What has been the reaction to “Steam of Life” in Finland?

Joonas and Mika:The reaction has been just great. With the film showing in only 6 theatres we have sold over 17, 000 tickets in five weeks and it's doing very well in cinemas still. Also, winning the Risto Jarva prize and audience awards in March at the Tampere Film Festival in Finland means a lot to us. We received a 15 minute standing ovation after our premiere. It was a great experience for us, young directors.


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