Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
In Southeastern Estonia, a group of women enter the confines of a small sauna overlooking a picturesque lake. While they take in the heat, they openly talk about their lives, their secrets and their deepest trauma. They may only gather here a handful of times throughout the year, but they’re nevertheless united by an unbreakable bond of sisterhood. Estonian filmmaker Anna Hint takes viewers into the heart of this camaraderie within Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, her powerful documentary debut.
Enveloped by the forest that surrounds it, the sauna feels like it’s removed from the rest of the world. It’s a space that belongs to only these women, where they’re able to talk about anything. Some of the stories shared are humorous anecdotes about family, others are harrowing accounts of sexual assault that are difficult to listen to. No matter what these women have to say, their words are welcomed with unconditional support. Watching these intimate interactions unfold is poignant and deeply moving.
More than simply a sauna in a beautiful setting, Hint portrays the location and the traditional rituals within it as magical. Shots of swirling smoke accompanied by a hypnotic vocal soundtrack give the place an ethereal, almost otherworldly, atmosphere. Moreover, by opening the film with the women performing breathy, rhythmic chants, there are witchy connotations to what’s going on, cementing this sisterhood as a being akin to a coven. Moreover, this symbolism extends outside of the smoke-filled cabin and into the wilderness where the women lay naked on the grass and bathe in the lake. However, it’s the ending where this allegory of witchcraft is at its most effective, in which a closing chant crescendos until it erupts into cries in a manner reminiscent of the finale of The Witch.
Much like the rituals performed in the sauna (lighting the fire, dowsing the stones, sharing water to drink), the documentary also falls into its own steady rhythm. While this structure adds to the hypnotic quality of events, the repetition of watching these women undergoing the same actions without much variation begins to weigh down the runtime towards the latter half, consequently making the final third more taxing than it should to get through.
Nevertheless, inside a sauna in the middle of nowhere, Hint transports viewers into a private and magical world of sisterhood.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is released in select cinemas on 13th October 2023.
Watch the trailer for Smoke Sauna Sisterhood here: