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Film Review: Miesten vuoro (Steam of Life)

August 3, 2010

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Last night, I attended a screening of the Finnish documentary Miesten vuoro (Steam of Life in English). The film offers a look inside the Finnish sauna, with a primary focus on the men who visit saunas as a way of communing with each other. Without narration or establishing any firm facts or conclusions, Miesten vuoro simply observes as anonymous men (we don’t learn the names of any of the individuals profiled until the credits) sit in saunas and talk with each other about deeply personal issues, including love, lust, family, abuse, addiction, friendship and death. Rather than perpetuate the notion of men as quiet and emotionless, Miesten vuoro highlights a masculinity that is open and sensitive, if one that hides behind the surface in most public situations.

Finland is known for its culture of gender equality. Women are active in politics and government, and the employment rates for women are comparable to those for men. Perhaps, due to this sense of equality that is less common in other countries, men in Finland are more comfortable abandoning traditional roles and sharing aspects of their true selves — at least in certain situation.

There is also a certain innate equality that comes from collective nudity. After all, when one is literally naked, there is little left to hide. During the question-and-answer session at the screening I attended, Miesten vuoro‘s director, Joonas Berghäll, explained that the sauna is the one institution in Finland that is free of hierarchy. All men, regardless of economic or professional status, are equal when sitting naked together in the sauna. This additional layer of equality adds to the ability of men to be open with one another, as they know, regardless of what they might confess, they are on the same level as all of the other men in the room.

Watching the men in the documentary share their stories with one another reminded me of the consciousness-raising groups held by second-wave feminists in the 1960s. Several of the men remark that it is only in the sauna that they are able to talk about their deepest feelings and secrets, things that they typically do not share with women or other relatives. Although the idea of group discussion and sharing about personal topics is something that is often associated with women, none of the men in the film appear emasculated or particularly feminine. Instead, the film offers an opportunity for audiences to redefine masculinity — or, at least, observe masculinity in a potentially unfamiliar cultural context. As filmmakers Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen explained in an interview:

In Finland over the last ten years or more, there have been loads of documentaries and discussions in the media about women’s emotions and lives. We thought it was time to show that there is a tender and emotional side to men also.

Overall, I loved Miesten vuoro. I appreciated the rituals involved with Finnish sauna culture, like the silver birch massages and the containers of water poured on hot stones to generate more steam. I loved seeing the different types of saunas — everything from public saunas in cities to more private saunas in homes, trailers and abandoned telephone booths. Most importantly, I enjoyed observing a type of masculinity that is rare in U.S. public discourse — and particularly rare in mainstream U.S. cinema. Miesten vuoro is certainly specific to Finland and Finnish culture, but the larger themes and ideas behind it are universal. It is a film that men (and women) all over the world would benefit from seeing, as it expresses the important message that masculinity and the sharing of one’s personal feelings and thoughts are not mutually exclusive.

To learn more about Miesten vuoro, watch the trailer below. (Video contains subtitles.)

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