As lyrically shot and poignant as it may be, “Steam of Life” inarguably makes for an unusual choice to rep Finland in the Oscar race for foreign-language feature, though for different reasons depending on one’s background.
To the Finnish, the Nordic Council Film Prize nominee is their first-ever doc to be selected for Academy consideration, yet cultural outsiders might be more surprised by its subject: Finnish men baring their souls, and bodies, in a steam bath.
“There’s something like 5.5 million people and 2.5 million saunas in Finland,” estimates producer Joonas Berghall, who disrobed with his co-director Mika Hotakainen, warmed up an old 16mm camera to prevent their lens from blurring and filmed extremely candid confessions ranging from custody battles to remembering the deaths of loved ones.
“Finnish society has changed in the last 15 years, and many places (now) don’t care about Finnish men because they don’t speak so much,” explains Berghall, who got the idea for a film in 2005 after realizing that listening to other men during a steamy cleanse could help his own depression.
“For women, it’s very easy to tell strong stories in a cafeteria or restaurant with a glass of red wine. But in the sauna, there are no other people, maybe you and your best friend. That’s the place where you can really speak.”
As a producer on the film, Berghall didn’t campaign for the potential Oscar slot, as the decision was entirely up to a committee of film professionals, who described the work as “a unique and brave film, displaying a wide range of emotions. Tragedy, comedy and even surrealism mix in a true Finnish setting, in the sauna, in a way that will touch viewers, regardless of their cultural background.”
A theatrical triumph in its homeland, perhaps its greatest success is of the personal variety. “Little by little during this film,” says Berghall, “I tried to find me as a man — as a Finnish man.”
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