Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (2023)

Directed by Anna Hints

In the darkness of smoke sauna, women share their innermost secrets and intimate experiences. Through a sense of communion, women wash off the shame trapped in their bodies and regain their strength.

Seattle International Film Festival 2023: Film #29

There's a certain sharpness to the cinematography in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood; a very slight grittiness in the picture. That's not to say that isn't a beautiful film, as the majority of scenes are both visually (or emotionally) attractive. But director Anna Hints' refusal to overly aestheticise Võrumaa sauna not only lends her documentary a more authentic feel, it also doesn't romanticise the experience and puts distance from this longstanding cultural tradition and the modern expensive day spa.

There's also a definite element of non-performance to the film as well. By this, I don't mean to say that they didn't feel like real people; what I mean to convey is that the women don't seem to be communicating in a kind of performative manner that one might say of—somewhat uncharitably, I must add—students who are new to progressive politics. These women are just there in the sauna with each other, very much experiencing the ideal, non-judgemental space that student groups try and artificially create, and not trying to 'prove' anything to anyone' Like the cinematography, this not only adds to the genuineness of what is being depicted, but it also emotionally conveys the sense that Estonian smoke sauna has a long, established history.

The biggest drawback of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is that it isn't really made for me; an aggressively average white guy from Western Europe. There will always be some emotional dimension of this film that is denied me, a feeling I had when they were sharing harrowing stories from their youth. This simply can't have the same cathartic effect on me as it clearly did on the women in the audience with me… some of which could probably directly relate to what was being said.

Yet at the same time, one of the best things about this film was that it wasn't made for me… and that I could view it nonetheless.