In the darkness of the sauna, women share their most intimate secrets. The drops of sweat that glide off their bodies, take away their shame and while they rinse off their stories from the past they regain a sense of community that strengthens them for the outside world.
Bellies and booties are bare: you’ll find no bashfulness here. And no lewdness either. The camera lens is so close to the skin of these sweating women that their bodies, the cured meat in the smoke hut and the porous surface of the steaming sauna stones are sometimes hard to discern. Inside a sauna, there’s no judgement: hanging breasts, skin folds and thick thighs are merely that. As seasons pass outside, a group of women bare their bodies and their souls.
The South Estonian smoke sauna tradition was recognised by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage. The ritual cleanses soul and body and should strengthen family ties and friendships. Healing is central: conflicts are left at the door. And yet Estonian filmmaker Anna Hints' gaze catches a social conflict: the testimonies of the women she films reveal the crushing effects of patriarchal society. One tells of her metastatic breast cancer and her arduous health journey, while another tries to understand why people don’t hug anymore. The toughest story only surfaces at the end of this hybrid documentary. Some experiences are too gruesome to be told and heard unprepared.
From dickpics to coming-outs, in the heat of the hut the women receive each other's words with recognition and humour. Difficult issues are raised gently, awkwardly or falteringly. At other times, the exchange is explosive and exorcising, but there is always nodding, caressing, sighing: people are listening. And the filmmaker confirms this with her cinematographical choices: sharp chiaroscuro images, extreme close-ups and a slightly rousing then ethereal soundtrack drive up the intensity of listening. The smoke is thick and intoxicating, but all senses are on edge. The chatter grows louder and benign silhouettes lurk in the shadows. A sisterhood is forged.
This immersive documentary is frank and invigorating, but just as a dip in the frozen lakes around the sauna offers coolness to the sweaty women, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood provides a cold shower for those who didn't already know: the patriarchy may be centuries old, but still very much alive.
"Mostly we are inside the tiny wooden room with the women, almost as though we’re sitting right there alongside them, dipping our hands into the cup of warm water that’s passed around, and feeling the heated, scented air draw all the toxins from our bodies. There is also a mystical aspect to this tradition, with chants and incantations, while sometimes one of the women will perform a kind of ritual over another. (...) But the real magic of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is nothing supernatural. It is simply the way that Hints’ film invites us to be part of this supportive, witty, sweaty collective, which feels like it operates on the most practical yet optimistic of assumptions: that with the application of enough heat and fellowship, everything painful can be soothed and everything dirty can be made clean." - Variety
Edvard Egilsson, EETER
Hendrik Mägar, Tushar Prakash, Qutaiba Barhamji, Martin Männik, Anna Hints
Alexandra Film, Kepler22 Productions, Ursus Parvus
Estonian, Seto, Võro
Iceland, Estonia, France