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Silverdocs Documentary Festival 2010: 'Steam of Life and Familia'

Some of the most deeply emotional films at this year's Silverdocs couldn't help but seem like stories somewhat created rather than simply observed.

Steam of Life

Director: Mika Hotakainen, Joonas Berghäll
Trailer
Official site

Familia

Director: Mikael Wiström, Alberto Herskovits
Trailer
Official site

The invisible hand behind the camera was very prevalent in two of the most touching films at Silverdocs; whether or not this was an issue depends on how you like to take your nonfiction filmmaking. Both Steam of Life and Familia were gripping works that maybe had little in common besides their potent emotionality and Scandinavian directors (Finnish in the former, Swedish the latter), but it was hard to escape the sense that the stories being offered up had been shaped all too readily for the viewers.

Mika Hotakainen and Joonas Berghäll's comic Steam of Life is less a documentary than it is a dry comic rumination on the pains and pleasures (mostly the former) of life, all set within the Finnish saunas where a succession of naked and sweating men tell stories in between beers. The locations are as different as the men themselves, from the functional municipal saunas where two seemingly homeless men grouse about their lives to the jerry-rigged one fashioned out of a rustbucket trailer in the backwoods. One man even fashions a sweat chamber out of a glass phone booth at a country crossroads.

The film seems initially determined to lay back and let the talk come, or not. An old couple steam together, the man briskly tending to his wife: "For almost 51 years I've washed this back." Watching a happily rotund man listening to his shaky, glass-eyed buddy talk about how his wife took his daughter from him, it's clear there's little the friend can do but sit quietly and listen, like the audience.

After some time, though, Hotakainen and Berghäll move into more forced and quirky territory. Seeing the band of Santas-for-hire sweating out the day's tension while still wearing their suits, you wonder whether the filmmakers asked them to do that for comic effect. Time after time, we're introduced to another small group or pair of friends stoically telling their stories, punctuated by a stifled cry, slug of beer, or slapping of another ladleful of water on the steaming rocks. But the vignettes come like clockwork, to the point where you can almost hear the filmmakers saying, "Action!"

Mikael Wiström, Alberto Herskovits's wrenching Familia has a flow to it completely unlike the wintry episodes of Steam of Life. The Barrientos family lives in a sloping working-class neighborhood clouded in red dirt outside Lima, Peru and haven't been able to make ends meet, ever. After a lyrical open on a fog-shrouded oceanside cliffs, the filmmakers get to the crux of the matter: the mother, fifty-year-old Nati, is leaving for Spain, where she hopes to get work. She'll leave behind her eight-year-old son, Dani, older daughter, Judith (who provides some of the narration), and her partner Daniel, who she's been with for 31 years without being married.

The Barrientos's problems are grounded as the film's style is lyrical: "What I earn is barely enough for food," says Daniel, who operates a rusted motorcycle cab that looks about one small pothole away from imploding. Black-and-white photos from years past show the Barrientos in more straitened circumstances, living in a ragged tent in a garbage dump. But while they may have come up in the world since then, having to send their mother across the world (it'll be a year and a half before she can return) seems liable to tear something unfixable.

While the filmmakers clearly had remarkable access to Barrientos, to the point where they could make themselves as invisible as a camera crew ever can, the kind of intimate conversations that Nati and Daniel launch into sometimes seem forced and overly composed, in a reality TV manner. There are only a few of these moments but they complicate the appreciation of an otherwise outstanding document, whose grand visuals never overpower its story. The closest that it comes to metaphorical imagery – the repeated shot of Dani's spinning top, running in circles like Nati and Daniel are forced to – is nicely underplayed.

What Familia does best is show in unelaborated terms just how bruisingly tough the Barrientos' life is. In Spain, the hotel and later private home that Nati works in arrive like explosions of wealth and color, signposts of a different sort of world, one which requires the staunch labor of these immigrant women to keep itself going. The camera lingers thoughtfully on the window of a shop where the women go to call home, it's covered with signs listing rates for all the countries of the Spanish-speaking servant diaspora: Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Columbia, Ecuador.

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