Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (2023) ‘Sheffield DocFest’ Review: Pain washes over the viewer as they watch Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. The subjects of Anna Hints’ film are ordinary women of Estonia who have huddled in a smoke sauna to exchange their stories and unburden their pent-up pain, which sprawls across an entire gamut of female experiences. It becomes a sacred space of cleansing and emotional release, a private domain tucked away from scrutiny and judgment where the women forge an intertwined network of empathy.

There are also bursts of laughter and humor that leaven the atmosphere that frequently turns grim and gutting as the testimony-like narratives accrue a collection of horrors and hurt experienced by each. But the amusement is steeped unmistakably in the sheer hypocrisy of circumstances that parents, families, and societies aid and abet in generating. The women recognize and identify and call out the lies they have been fed, the skewed notions of beauty, feminine virtue, and ideal womanhood they have been taught to emulate and endorse.

When these women come together and discover convergences despite the individual uniqueness of what they are discussing, there’s something truly volcanic and immense we sense, a reckoning that disrupts all the notions we believe as strongly defined for us. We witness a gradual extrusion of guilt, shame, and accumulated aches.

The candor in the ways Hints frame them, and how they occupy the space in a tender, trustful proximity renders the women as people who have shed their social roles for a fleeting while and are engaging with each other as their unvarnished selves, liberated of the expectations they carry. A woman talks of the burden of normative beauty standards and the censure that comes with not cutting a ballerina-like figure. It is only in her forties that she felt beautiful. The honing of a perfect figure or body type is a wish fulfillment for her mother, who never emerged from the trap of desirability for the prying male eye.

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It takes its toll on the daughter, crippling her self-esteem from which she would take decades to gain any grounding and recover the most basic connection to her body on her own terms. Narratives presented in the confessionals range from an acceptance of singlehood that has to battle the imposed demand of a male partner to dickpics to a coming to terms with sexuality. That the female body, tasked with the procreative, is viewed as a resource, the film spells it out. This supposed resource the society feels entitled to pass the most irresponsible comments on is prone to the most severe attacks.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (2023) 'Sheffield DocFest' Review
A still from Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (2023)

The Estonian vocabulary that refrains from gestures of love and care, treating them more like “an interesting animal,” exacerbates matters. Hints give utterance to these attacks through the women, gutting the viewer till she cuts away to intermezzo-like accordion-scored sequences, offering a reprieve to the viewer and restoring a time of healing to the subjects. Edvard Egilsson’s sound design adds almost a transcendental, mystically elevated dimension to the film. The women take dips in the river, stretch out in the open, soaking in nature, indulging in recreation.

These sequences are brief before the director pulls us back into the interiors of the sauna. She conjures images of a mass of smoke fogging everything as a faceless voice occasionally chips in with the women. They keep the hearth going, wet their hair and whisk each other’s backs with serrated branches. The sound of the whisking combines with choric chants to create a heady sensation. At the same time, Ants Tammik’s camera wields an astoundingly comfortable, respectful informality and intimacy, moving from extreme close-ups of the schvitzing, bare-bodied women’s legs, arms, and thighs to the outer natural expanses.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood talks bravely and unflinchingly about the choices women make and the consequences they are made to negotiate. It examines that these choices are often forced into a finality, situations of no escape nor return for women, instituting clear linkages between the abuse they suffered and their grandmothers. The threat of violence on the female body is a hovering presence across generations. Women who have been shoved into motherhood inflict their repressed anger on their daughters.

The cycle seems unbreakable, but for a while, in this evanescent time-capsule-like space, there are born and regenerated emancipatory impulses stemming from the sharing of experience and knowledge, foregrounding resistance and a re-affirmation of private narratives in the face of patriarchal silencing. Anna Hints has made a tremendous, entrancing film that bristles with undiluted grief and rage. The power with which it grows while the stories meet, is unshakably visceral.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood screened at the Sheffield DocFest 2023.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (2023) Movie Other Details: Documentary, Runtime – 1h 29m

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