Steam of Life (Miesten vuoro) offers a series of such scenes that show men talking. They talk about their children, their wives, their hopes and losses.
"One thing I've noticed, boys, about love and what women like, that's massage. Neck, shoulders, legs, and buttocks: every day. That's our love story right there." The man sharing his wisdom sits on a bench with three others, who nod and laugh along with him. Their bellies are wide, their faces are red from the heat inside a Finnish steam bath. And they agree: "Women are very particular about the spots they want massaged. I think they call them g-spots, or, what do they call them?"
The men laugh some more. Intimate and at ease, this foursome introduces Steam of Life (Miesten vuoro), premiering this month on PBS' POV and available online 3 August through 1 November. The documentary offers a series of such scenes, that is, men talking. They talk about their children, their wives, their hopes and losses. One young man describes the moment when he was handed his newborn son: "They lifted him into my arms and I cut the umbilical cord and I saw the baby," he says, his face young, bearded, and pale. Looking at his friends -- seated between lockers, their nether parts wrapped in towels -- he adds, "Now one dream has come true and maybe, God will give us a little princess later." The men clink their beer bottles.
The fact that the men are mostly naked suggests that they're also revealing themselves emotionally, and indeed, a few of these vignettes also feature men crying. As two coworkers sit close together in a trailer rigged for steam -- a wood-burning stove keeps the stones hissing -- each has a bombshell to drop. The first, a large fellow with pink skin, begins the session as such, saying, "These are really insane stories, the things I've told you, things like hidden family violence." He explains what that means: his stepfather abused him from the time he was seven until he was old enough to fight back. "You grown numb with it," he observes, always being hit, beaten or strangled."
But as the pair pass a bottle of liquor between them and add more wood to the stove, the pause gives way to the second man's story. Slouched beside his companion, scrawnier and hairier, he remembers how he came to lose his daughter, through what sounds like a difficult legal battle with his mother. The camera cuts to the larger man as he listens: he signed the papers his lawyer told him to sign, the small man continues, tears on his cheeks. "It still hurts."
The shot cuts to the men seated on chairs outside the steam trailer, towels around their waists and beer bottles in their hands, then to a sooty, big-mouthed machine, their workplace out in the woods. From off screen, the men contemplate the daughter's possible visit. "We could cry together," says the father. "I'm always crying alone." The larger man offers his own analysis: "It would be good for her to know the reasons behind it."
The scenes that follow are similarly quiet, if increasingly poignant, as men describe difficult personal histories, their own drinking or their mothers dying, a longtime relationship with a bear, how they struggle with being men. "I poured a lot of anxiety and bad feelings into workouts," says a military officer, his tattoos prominent. "In a military organization," he explains, "Showing softness of weakness is not necessarily a strength."
If his and other men's recollections are brief, the film's visual evocations are rich. Close-ups show thick arms and legs, perspiring faces, ample stomachs. Longer shots indicate how the men arrange themselves in small spaces, lined up on benches or alone. One man describes his criminal past in voiceover, the camera low as he contemplates the steam-hutch he's built on his property. He was in prison and near suicide, he says, when the warden put him in solitary. He dumps a bucket of water on his head, then appears in a new frame, gazing out an open door behind him. Outside, his three sons are playing, and in a next shot, they've come inside to steam with him. One by one, he splashes water on each, as they smile, sharing a manly silence with their dad. Over a long shot of his house and his kids on swings, he concludes, "I've always had empty pockets. Now I have a family and empty pockets."
It's a tidy segment, the visuals reflecting this father's self-narration. To be sure, in this story as in others, the nakedness suggests honesty and revelation. Men who sit together without clothes are sharing something, the film implies, and they just happen to be doing it this time in front of a camera. But this is another aspect of these steam baths: not only do the men show themselves, they also perform themselves, in ways that are inevitably self-aware. In Steam of Life, as men reflect on being men, the compositions are telling too. Between stories, long shots show snow and trees, wind and mountains, a world apart from such intense social interactions. Each man's story is simultaneously exposed and constructed, confronted and recounted. Their naked bodies tell stories of their own.