Ask your average English-speaking layman to play a game of Word Association, and the chances are, if you say Finland, that if they don’t opt for ‘cold’, or ‘depressed’, the word ‘sauna’ will come up. I’ve always found it amusing that the Swedes and Finns both lay claim to the advent of the Sauna, and in the excellent coming-of-age novel Popular Music in Vittula, by Mikael Niemi, set on the border of the two countries, there is a wonderful argument between the elders on the virtues of a Swedish sauna versus a Finnish version, and, God forbid, a Norwegian equivalent. There is nothing comparable in any European culture I can think of that is so central as the Sauna is to the Nordic countries, and, in particular, to Finnish men.
Miesten Vuoro serves as a celebration of the sauna while exploring ground hitherto relatively unknown – emotional tenderness beneath that most hardened veneer of macho stoicism, the Finnish male psyche. Far from the emotionally retarded, monosyllabic stereotype that is generally accepted, the many subjects of this excellent documentary all have stories to tell, which are in turn heartbreaking, endearing, and often compelling. The directorial duo of Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen have stated in interview that, during the ten years in which they dreamed up a formula, ‘there have been loads of documentaries and discussions in the [Finnish] media about women’s emotions and lives. We thought it was time to show that there is a tender and emotional side to men also.’ (1)
The film takes the form of a series of vignettes, set in saunas all across Finland, with interludes depicting panoramic landscapes of the country to set the context. Domestic strife is a theme that comes up more than once, and many of the subjects of conversation are universal enough for an international audience to relate to. However, they also tell us a great deal about Finnish society, such as certain characters’ battles with alcoholism and solitude. Not all the scenes are everyday tales of the average Joe – one man gives a lengthy account of his paternal relationship with a fully-grown grizzly bear, and a group of off-duty Santa Claus’ are amongst those placed for comic relief. Sometimes the documentary form is betrayed by set pieces like this – a scene featuring a man taking a sauna in a converted telephone box, and another of a couple who have altered a clapped-out car to enjoy a cleansing seem unlikely, and the fact that the Santas wear full dress in the changing room is playing to the camera in a rather more staged manner than might befit a true ‘documentary’. Nevertheless, these are minor quibbles. When the film finished at the cinema I was at, the audience trailed out the theatre in a sober fashion, but I saw several with moist eyes, and quiet, warm smiles, which I imagine is exactly the reaction the film set out to achieve.