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Smoke Sauna Sisterhood review: An intimate and poetic take on womanhood

Anna Hints' Estonian documentary presents nature as 'an aiding force, catalysing the women’s healing and existing as a place of refuge and release.'

By Tanya Fevzi, Third Year, English

Anna Hints’ Estonian documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (2023) was released on October’s Friday 13th. The 89-minute film entails the intimate moments five women spend in a cabin in the woods in Estonia, sharing their experiences of being women, and what this means. The entirety of the film is set amongst this cabin and its immediate surrounding areas; inside the cabin, the women create safety and comfortability in the darkness of a smoke sauna. 

The smoke sauna is a centuries-old Estonian tradition that’s practised regularly in Estonia. It is introduced in the film, after being directly greeted by the women, as ‘a sacred place where you clean yourself’. The sauna as a place of physical and mental cleansing is well depicted in the film, highlighting the essential purpose of relaxing the body and the mind. Notably, the sauna also functions as a place for childbirth and for smoking meat, which we see in the film.

Hints illustrates the ways in which the women cleanse themselves and each other inside the cabin, as the idea of cleansing oneself from the past is a central theme in the film. After water is poured over hot stones to produce hot steam-laden air, we see the women sweating, washing, massaging, and leaf whisking. Leaf whisking is done with a 'viht' – this is a branch of leaves used to beat the body inside the sauna as a form of exfoliation and to stimulate blood circulation. More healing practices we see the women performing are the rubbing of salt on the body to protect it from evil inside and out, and the physical expulsion through spoken words: ‘We sweat out this pain and fear.’

Courtesy of IMDb

It seems, however, that the most healing element of the smoke sauna experience is the female collectivism, the sisterhood. The documentary certainly feels raw and honest in its depiction of women, from the perspective of women. The opening shot, for example, depicts a woman breastfeeding her baby, and the five women in the sauna are naked throughout the film – in a non-objectifying, non-sexualising way. In the cabin, therefore, protected from the male gaze, the women share stories of times they were subjected to the male gaze. 

The five women begin their discussions by recounting experiences from when their bodies were subjected to beauty standards, even by their own mothers. They conclude that a ‘valuable’ woman is one who can attract men. The women go on to discuss deeply personal experiences of breast cancer, rape, lesbianism, abortion, periods, and the Estonian tendency to avoid the word ‘love’. Amongst this vulnerability, laughter and joy are not absent. The comfort of relatability and the power of discussion are prominent. 

Nature is presented as an aiding force in the film, catalysing the women’s healing and existing as a place of refuge and release. Set amidst tall trees and a lake, which we see transform from snowy to sunny as the seasons change, the isolated location of the cabin is the central point of the sisterhood.

Courtesy of IMDb

After a session in the sauna, the women consistently wash themselves off in the lake, plunging into the freezing temperatures to counteract the heat of the sauna. Sound is also important; whilst the film's soundscape is majorly dominated by diegetic sound, there are moments of intense musical bursts. The accordion, for example, is often played by one of the women outside the cabin as they all sing and dance around in nature joyously.

Ultimately, the film is an intriguing and alluring exploration of womanhood, nature, self-preservation, and sisterhood.  It is heartfelt, funny, uncomfortable, and honest. A must-watch for those who want to be confronted with or comforted by the shared experiences of women. Anna Hints undoubtedly captures authenticity in this incredible documentary.

Featured Image: IMDb