Every filmmaker you meet will tell you the same
thing: Their film must be seen in a theater. It needs to be seen on the
big screen, it needs to be seen with a crowd, it needs to be seen at
night, it needs to be seen with a great sound system. As a firm believer
in the possibilities (and economics) of digital, as well as a
long-legged grump who usually carries a large purse, I tend to think
most filmmakers are wrong.
It turns out Steam of Life would be one of just two films I saw over the course of the week that was actually shot on film (scrappy 16mm, no less) and really did warrant the tearful pleas to see it projected on a large screen. Berghäll and his co-director Mika Hotakainen interviewed a dozen Finnish men as they sat in saunas and steam rooms, opening up to each other and the filmmaker team (a total of five extra naked men in each room when you factor in co-directors, cinematographer, sound recordist and camera operator) about hardships they've faced in life. Their stories range from harrowing to merely reflecting the complexities and frustrations modern men face trying to remain stoic and resilient despite being occasionally overwhelmed with the tragedy and beauty of life. The few moments of levity, a sardonic splash of water onto hot coals, a synchronized beer gulp and the gleeful reveal that one man keeps a grizzly bear as a pet, give relief when it's needed.
What is revealed in Steam is that in moments of emotional turmoil and crisis, people benefit the most merely by being heard. No one in the room tries to soothe the person speaking or provide a greater context for their experiences. They stand back and give them the space to talk and with that comes an immediate, visible sense of catharsis. The filmmakers match the experience by keeping the shots simple, applying zero voice-over narration and the cutting in elegant, long takes.
Sitting in a sold out theater watching these stories unfold, it was easy to forget that my legs were cramped and that I was hungry and that the theater was cold and that I had dozens of e-mails to return. Instead I just felt temporarily comforted to be in the presence of hundreds of other people intermittently crying, giggling and sighing with agreement. But please nobody tell that pesky filmmaker that I was wrong, because I really do enjoy watching movies in bed.
Steam of Life screened as part of the HotDocs 2010 program.
- Moving Pictures Magazine's interview with Joonas Berghäll