Saturday, August 6, 2011

Steam of Life, a review

Steam of Life (viewable in entirety online, until November) was a good documentary about Finnish men sharing stories of personal loss and tragedy, it was less about sauna buildings and use.  My eyes were drawn to reading the captions most of the time preventing me from adequately scrutinizing the scenes for building details.  And there were a few interesting scenes in it.  The next day it repeated several times on another PBS station and I recorded it (the first time I saw it I had the recorder set for the wrong channel).  I counted 12 saunas featured in the film.  I list them below with the approximate time that they appeared in the film. 
  1. [1] A scene with a husband and wife in a sauna, an experience that they had shared for at least 51 years together.  She is lying down with her feet propped up on the wall.  The sauna has a dark rough wood interior and smooth lighter toned benches. 
  2. [4] A sauna used by factory workers, with four men in the camera frame. 
  3. [6] An old camper trailer sauna shared by two men at a worksite in the woods (Northern Finland?).  The trailer interior looks typical with cheap prefab panel walls, some metal. 
  4. [13] A sauna used by a reformed ex-prisoner, shared with his three boys.  A three tier bench, the bottom one slides under the second for storage.  Tile floor, and a window behind the top platform and backrest to let in indirect light,  I though this was a nice feature.  A thin red curtain pulled to the side softens the light. 
  5. [20] What looks like some large farm equipment (a columbine?) whose capacious rear has been converted to a sauna.  Only the exterior is briefly shown. 
  6. [21] What looks like an abandoned car in a field of grass.  Two boys sit nearby.  When the door opens the escaping steam proves that this has been converted to a sauna as well.
  7. [21] What looks like a telephone booth along the side of a quiet country road; a naked man sits inside the steamy interior. 
  8. [22] A sauna scene very similar to the second one (listed above).  A long bench with five old men in the frame.  This appears to be part of a large health club for senior citizens. 
  9. [22] A tile and wood sauna where a man tells the story of a bear cub he adopted, but whose true identity is not revealed until the surprising end when the bear is viewed on screen with the man, presumably in his outdoor enclosure. 
  10. [27] A sauna by the ocean or a large lake, two men, one an Afghan war veteran.  A dark wood interior with light benches, illumination comes from under the benches, the large stove has what looks like small precast bricks in place of natural stones.  Next we see them in an adjacent washing room with high windows and lots of washing tubs. 
  11. [33] The setting is similar to the third one (listed above) in the north of Finland.  Two old gold miners at a campsite along a river.  There are lots of shelters made of tarpons and a staircase that leads to the river edge.  A do-it-yourself tent sauna with many sides and of pyramidal construction.  The interior is small with a central post and the sides are braced at increments of several feet by horizontal rough sawn slabs of timber.  Aside from these, the exposed foil faced sheeting is the only other main feature of construction.  Only later, about 49 minutes into the film, at the end, do we see a clear view of the exterior of this tent sauna. 
  12. [38] A very nice sauna by a lake, made of four sided logs and bricks (surrounding the wood stove).  A blanket hangs behind the platform where two men sit.  This is the climax of the film, one of the men recalls the loss of one of his twin children and relates the experience to the other. 
The documentary ends with a song that all the men featured in the film sing, cutting to scenes of each of them singing at their location, a few other men whose scenes did not make it into the finished version are included as well.  The symbolism is clear: separate people living separate lives, but united by their similar stories.  This begins about 49 minutes into the film, which ends with a total length of about 51 minutes.  Ending the film this way seemed strange to me at first, but may not seem so odd in Finland.  If you have any interest in saunas at all, or the human experience in general, it is a good film to see.

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