Smoke Sauna Sisterhood


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
"This is a place of cleansing, not just of the body but so much more as this non-intrusive but immersive film gradually reveals." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In the hot and intimate setting of the southern Estonian smoke sauna where Anna Hints’ film takes us, women share traditional rituals and their secrets. It’s a place where the heat of steam rising from rocks in the intimacy of a rural wooden hut is matched by the warmth and intensity of the camaraderie between the women who sit inside it. This is a place of cleansing, not just of the body but so much more as this non-intrusive but immersive film gradually reveals.

We will learn at the end that this tradition is on a UNESCO list of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” - which also includes the likes of Argentine and Uruguayan tango, Tibetan opera and Chinese calligraphy. “Intangible” is the perfect word for what happens in the sauna, which is as much about the people as it is the place, though the two are in perfect harmony with one another.

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Hints avoids direct explanations in favour of immersing us in the experience. We see wintry preparations, involving the cutting of a hole in the ice, where the women will take a dip, or the gathering of birch leaves, which will be bundled up to help beat out the toxins. Inside the sauna, recollections of trauma mingle with observations on life and traditional singing and chants. “Become, become powerful,” they chant, and later, “sweat out all the pain”. The seasons change through the course of the film further adding to the sense of the traditional and enduring.

The purely physical is present. Women’s bodies of different shapes and sizes sitting side by side as intimate conversations play out. Ants Tamik’s camera is, at once, up close and personal but also discreet. Anonymity is largely retained, with the camera focusing on individual parts of the body rather than faces, as the sweat and stories roll out. Hints is also striving for - and capturing - something altogether less corporeal. The atmosphere of this place allows for the inconsequentialities of life to mix with past trauma with no judgement. Occasionally a face almost takes shape in the steam, recalling historic inequalities - “a son was wanted more” - a patriarchal legacy that these women are shifting away from with their own children in mind.

Beyond the meditative quality of what is being said, the film is visually artistic, which coupled with its intimate access and the trust the participants evidently have in Hints is no doubt why it picked up a Special Jury Award for Directing at Sundance. There's artistry not just in the way that the women’s bodies are captured or in that face of history almost emerging from the steam but in the manner the light catches the water they pour, so it cascades like sparks. This small wooden hut in the middle of the forest may be physically confining but it offers a world of emotional freedom to those who enter it.

Reviewed on: 02 Feb 2023
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In the darkness of a smoke sauna, women share their innermost secrets and intimate experiences, washing off the shame trapped in their bodies and regaining their strength through a sense of communion.
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Director: Anna Hints

Year: 2023

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: Estonia, France, Iceland

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