THE STORY – Tucked in a lush green forest in southern Estonia, a group of women gather in the safe darkness of a smoke sauna to share their innermost thoughts and secrets. Enveloped by a warm, dense heat, they bare all to expel fears and shame trapped in their bodies and regain their strength.
THE CAST – N/A
THE TEAM – Anna Hints (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 89 Minutes
To heal and cleanse can be a refined practice, and for the women of southern Estonia, ease washes over them in the small space of the traditional smoke sauna. In her stellar feature-length directorial debut, Estonian filmmaker Anna Hints frames feminine vulnerability and sisterly communion with a careful observer’s admiration. “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is a quiet revelation of a film, relying artfully on the strength of fly-on-the-wall style direction and letting stories and traditions tell themselves. The film premiered in the World Cinema Documentary category at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Directing Achievement in its respective section. Hints’ film is cleansing, affecting, and one to seek out.
Within the lush, woodsy terrain of Võrumaa, Estonia, women bare their minds, bodies, and souls in a dark sauna. With smoke moving about to little escape, whisking away at their bodies with leaves and branches of birch and linden, it’s not just their physical forms that are cleansed. Through moments of profound reflection and honesty, the women of this smoke sauna find solace and pull comfort from one another. From stories of laughable Tinder messages and childhood memories to the matter of shame around one’s abortion, the film explores the gathering of raw stories that come to shape a woman’s life. It’s refreshing, heartbreaking, and empowering to see these women unshackle themselves of shame and guilt in a space full of love and renewal.
The women ruminate on what’s been expected of them: the standards of growing up as a woman, pleasing men, enduring generational trauma, and holding the guilt of their own aspirations. When their bare feet step into the smoke sauna, they are unconditionally met with open arms and assurance that they don’t have to face continued bottled hurt alone. This is where Hints’ film captures its sincerities, from women being in the presence of other women. Every story feels uniquely universal and ripe with togetherness. A keen eye for documented storytelling seems to only flourish with a patient ear, and Hints marvelously gains the trust of these women in their natural state.
The marvel of Hints’ direction is coupled with naturally lighted and wonderfully focused cinematography by Ants Tammik. The beautiful visual of bare bodies, natural folds, and sweat-drenched skin continues to imbue the nude nature of divulging our secrets and allowing ourselves to be understood. After a gathering in the sauna, the women take breaks out in the snow, still nude, running out to reinvigorate themselves. They’re seen soaking down in chilly waters, a kind of refresh from the high temperatures, and then head back to the sauna.
As the film moves from one story to the next, Tammik’s camera relaxes on their unclothed porcelain skin, shying away from most of their faces, showing empathetic privacy and purposeful filmmaking. During one scene, a woman reveals the physical and continuous sexual abuse she experienced one night in her teen years. All the other women are quiet, letting only her speak. At this moment, the camera rests on shots of this woman’s arm and then on the full face of another woman, who feels just as attentive and sensitive to this story as the viewer is. The storyteller then says she never wants this to happen to her daughter and tears up. These painful moments of recollection are captured so tenderly as the other women are quick to embrace her.
After sharing sore memories, musings, and laughs, they rub salt on each other and begin exfoliating and ridding themselves of dead skin cells and any lingering shame. Again, the camera lovingly captures the curves and dimples of their bodies. Hints and Tammik avoid any air of exploitative framing here. Instead, this sharp focus on skin and body tells a soft and resilient personal history of every woman who visits the sauna.
The existence of the smoke sauna itself feels primitive and inherently feminine. In one of the film’s first scenes, a baby is seen feeding from a naked woman’s breast. As history would tell, the hot cleanliness of the sauna was a favored place to give birth, thus accentuating the fruitful history and bond these women of Estonia share with one another as they gather in this place of healing. “To all my sisters,” reads an ending notecard.
“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” feels like a work of reflective art, weaving stories of relatable pains and joys as women, allowing all involved to heal and cleanse together. As a viewer, it’s comforting to see the different layers of healing found universally. It’s calmly paced, well-photographed, and fully realized. With just one feature-length film under her, Anna Hints displays a thoughtful way of reaching the emotional, poignant, and universal parts of our everyday lives.