The Men’s Turn at Last

Posted on November 3rd, 2010 by Edward Dutton in Culture

65DN finds a film dedicated to Finnish men deserving of its numerous prizes.

Some have tattoos

Miesten Vuoro follows a simple format. Finnish men sit in the sauna usually in pairs, sometimes in groups, occasionally alone. ‘Finnish men are traditionally supposed to be tough’ remarks one of the characters to his friend as they both sit there, sweating, naked. They’re not supposed to express their feelings, they’re not meant to show weakness . . . but they do in the sauna.

Miesten Vuoro takes us on a journey through Finland from public saunas in Helsinki to forest saunas in Lapland to makeshift saunas constructed out of old caravans, cars or phone boxes. We meet soldiers, factory-workers, elderly widowers, tramps, a reformed criminal, a retired train driver, businessmen, a Saami . . . even two young men with Down’s Syndrome.

In the sauna, they feel able to discuss their feelings or just think aloud about poignant, bitter-sweet moments from the past: from the joy of watching your baby being born to the tragedy of losing a child, Miesten Vuoro’s seemingly unconnected little sketches are fascinating portraits of what it may be like to be a Finnish man, of life in Finland and of the role which the sauna can play in it. These are real people – not actors – who the directors were able to persuade to tell their stories naked and on film.

The fact that these are real people in real saunas means that each tableaux possesses a detailed realism that it hard to fake. The soldier – who has been abroad a lot – is suntanned and likes body-building, one of the vagrants has a long and unkempt beard, the businessmen are slim and have neat stylish haircuts and their sauna is expensive-looking with aesthetically pleasing metal buckets and ladles. Others make do with a plastic bucket and turning an old caravan into a sauna. Some are very overweight, others skinny, some have tattoos.

Miesten Vuoro has a general air of melancholy. The men, in many cases, recall stories ranging from the sad to the deeply tragic but the directors balance this well with characters whose stories – despite some pathos – are upbeat, even comical: the young factory worker overwhelmed by becoming a father, the elderly widower telling his elderly friends about his girlfriend and the farmer who takes a very interesting child into foster care.

Watching the film, I gradually began to feel a sense of disappointment; that the directors could have taken everything much further. Miesten Vuoro darts around the country and around the seasons and I began thinking that it would have been more interesting if there had been more obvious connections between the different sketches as in Monty Python. I also, at first, disliked the ending which I felt – in its attempt to create catharsis – was manipulative and predictable. But the emotion was so raw that I soon found myself submerged in it and, once submerged, found myself experiencing the finale, which I could never have predicted, and which united all the sketches together in a final and thought-provoking climax.

It is a climax which, like much of the film, raises important questions about what it means to be a man; questions which are a rarely asked. Plays such as The Vagina Monologues – exploring the nature of the modern women – have been very successful and there are few plays, films or novels exploring the world from the specific perspective of a man. It has been argued that pre-Feminism literature is inherently from a man’s perspective but it does not generally specifically focus on questions regarding what it means to be male.

This film – at least with regard to Finnish men – is highly original in its attempts to do this. The title – Miesten Vuoro – is well chosen. The film is about Finnish men and the title connotes the ‘men’s turn’ whereby the women and men go to the sauna separately at a social or family gathering. But it is also, obviously, the ‘men’s turn’ to say how they feel and what it is like to be them. The official English title – alas – is dreadful: ‘The Steam of Life.’ As a metaphor, I can’t make any sense of it. Also, as often happens in Finnish films subtitled in English, little nuances are lost in the English text and, in a few cases, the translation was laughable at otherwise quite moving points in the documentary.

One of the issues raised in many of the sketches is the acceptability of expressing emotion when you’re a man because ‘Finnish men have traditionally been tough.’ When the emotional stories are told – a child’s passing, the death of a mother, accidentally killing somebody – there is a sense in which the men feel unable to talk about these things except in the odd environment of the sauna where normal social conventions are slightly altered. They apologise for expressing their feelings, meditate on how difficult it is to express them or, in one case, cancel out the possible unmanliness of the ‘talk’ by standing up, shaking hands and barking ‘Happy Independence Day!’

Another is the nature of male friendship. Often, one character expresses how he feels while the other says very little. He just listens. He is just there for his friend on the possibly rare occasion that his friend needs to do something other than make jokes or discuss cars, sport, politics or ideas. And it is an incredible testimony to – perhaps – Finnish frankness that the director could find people willing to tell their personal stories naked, into camera and for no payment.

Miesten Vuoro is simple, thoughtful  . . . a wonderful little film.

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Miesten Vuoro. 2010. Directed by Joonas Berghill and Mika Hotakainen. Oktober Oy Productions.

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