Young Critics Review: Smoke Sauna Sisterhood - Christy Tan
Protected by surreal wisps of smoke lie a group of women, nude and in repose. We never learn their names but become acquainted with the intimate details of their fatigued bodies. In the Võro community in southern Estonia, smoke sauna is a sacred ritual of purification. Cleaning oneself is as practical as it is symbolic. To do this in Estonia is not uncommon, but the gathering of these women invites us to witness something extraordinary. As they scrub each other’s backs and pour water over hot stones, there is nothing sinister or self-conscious about their coinciding sighs of cathartic relief. Close up shots of their bodies accompany fierce incantations to “become mighty, become powerful”, casting spells of collective solidarity. Shadowy lighting is purposefully deployed to conceal different body parts but this omission does not imply shame or taboo. The camera remains faithful in refusing an objectifying gaze.
There is something mystical about the warm and steamy smoke, softening the borders between bodies, relaxing them into a state of communion. Perspiration and tears co-mingle as the women repeatedly chant to “sweat it out, pain out!” - a ritual followed by a serene walk around an idyllic lake outside the sauna. Calmly floating on their backs, it is as if they have been emptied of their past afflictions. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood not only captures the intimacy of disclosure but, the reciprocity of being seen and heard in an atmosphere of mutual understanding. In this female sanctuary of empowerment, there is music and dancing, singing and laughter. Their bodies become instruments and conduits for pleasure and release, the camera basking in the sensations of how their bodies feel in unison.
In an age of confession where disclosure feels increasingly futile and impotent, what sets Smoke Sauna Sisterhood apart is the women’s profound capacity for rest. Although the film offers no new political insights or experiences that haven’t already been circulated, their collective rest embodies a form of respite and resistance, celebrating the ways in which women come together to recharge and reflect. This recuperation does little to offer genuine reparations and reckoning for the harm and violence done by misogyny and patriarchy but condolence is cultivated through commiseration and common renewal. As they share stories of rape, abortion and miscarriage, to name a few, the voices that convey their vulnerability are out of sync with the bodies that bear their weight. Voiceovers are displaced, not necessarily corresponding with the bodies on screen. No individual story is isolated from the amorphous, cumulative body the women collectively inhabit, safely binding all their experiences together.
Christy Tan writes poems, reviews and essays for various Australian publications. She was a recent alumna of Melbourne International Film Festival’s 2023 Critics Campus and currently lives in Melbourne on unceded Wurundjeri land.