An inherent part of female existence is the eventual realization that in most social contexts, you and your body are viewed as a resource and commodity. The consequential aspect of female existence is the sisterhood that is created by these overarching shared experiences. Anna Hints’ “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is a document of this reality in the locale of an Estonian sauna. Women gather to cleanse themselves, both physically and spiritually. They wash themselves clean while revealing the histories of their bodies, the way they’ve been judged, perceived, and co-opted by the narratives of others in a world where they are seen as social currency.
“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is a fly-on-the-wall style documentary at its most intimate. Even the music (which is very sparing in the film’s sonic profile, consisting mostly of dialogue and the sounds of water in the sauna) is entirely diegetic, played by the women in moments of outdoor reprieve from the humidity and emotional baring that takes place within the smokehouse.
The film is a warm embrace of unfettered, unfiltered femininity. The women, and their bodies, are treated with reverence. Even in abstraction among shots where it’s purely about shape and shadow, and body parts are rendered unidentifiable, it’s clear the camerawork is an adoring study of anatomy and not a gaze motivated by sexuality. The chiaroscuro in the photography of their forms and the misty shots of their bodies in silhouette is worshipful: a tribute to the divine feminine.
The conversations between the women in the sauna are au naturale, jumping from serious to sarcastic with authentic grace, and it never feels like they were directed to a particular topic or tone. They discuss their shames, prides, and traumas, the things their bodies have experienced both by choice and subjection. “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is an observational study of women’s relationship to vanity, sexuality, and sociality both as a state of being and a generational tradition. Whether it’s the way our mothers raise us, the way our peers indoctrinate us, or the way omniscient patriarchal societies grasp us, we are constantly poked and prodded by the fingers of influence, and the film enforces that only through each other can we find our own autonomy.
The sauna itself is a world of its own: a feminine garden of eden. Flares of light, smoke and mist, beads of water and sweat, and the women themselves are shrouded in the essence of warmth and comfort. Everything feels ritualistic. In the preparation of the sauna, whether it’s hauling buckets of water or plowing into frozen lakes, there’s labor involved: a testament to all the ways in which women are caretakers. And as these women care for each other physically and emotionally, we are immediately subjected towards introspection. “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” doesn’t only amplify the experiences of these women but prompts us to immediately connect, to look within to where we can relate, how, and what healing we might be in need of.
Utterly bewitching with the spirit of womanhood, the documentary is a step into female existence and a spirit-shaking catharsis. Every story, every emotion, and every connection in “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” supersedes culture, creed, and country. We are in an Estonian sauna, but only superficially. In actuality, “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is an insertion into the hivemind of female experience. With every release of the women in the film, and each anecdote, the voice comes from a single mouth but the impact is bone-deep in the shared skeleton of the feminine population. Pointedly intimate and refreshingly candid, “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is a powerful sanctification of womanhood, sisterhood, and strength.