Smoke Sauna Sisterhood ★★★★★ Sea Change Festival 2023

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood ★★★★★ Sea Change Festival 2023

An unbelievably intimate yet Anna Hints Smoke Sauna Sisterhood stunning documentary captures the beauty in being vulnerable, a profoundly cathartic viewing experience.

In the darkness of the smoke sauna, a group of women tend to each other’s bodies as they share their innermost secrets and experiences. Their candid and cathartic conversations about body image, family and social expectations, illness, sex, sexuality, childbirth, and violence give a sense of communion as the women wash away the shame trapped in their bodies and regain their strength. 

When you think of sauna, you think of sweating out the physical woes, easing the pains of arthritis to get you through the day, and hopefully finding yourself in a meditative state of ease. What perhaps doesn’t cross your mind is that it can be the perfect place to ease so much more emotionally and mentally. Here in Anna Hints Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, we see women find a place where they can release anything that has been on their minds in several rituals. Their practice is one that the Võro community abides by, and you can clearly see why. This hut and ritual up in the woods becomes a place for escape for women to be themselves in the most freeing of manners.

We never really know about these women as individuals, never learning all their wants and life stories. No, here we are given snippets, just what they want to reveal to one another and in doing so, it feels cathartic, like a pressure valve has been released. They can just sit and let it all out. Be it the revelation of what it is like to lose your hair in clumps from chemotherapy, coming out to your parents, or even about a brutal rape. They are opening themselves up in the safest spot you could imagine, with other women free of all restrictions.

Of course, for some, what gets discussed in these scenes can overwhelm or become too much, but that is the point of Hints film, we are here to listen, to be supportive of whatever a fellow human being has to say. It just so happens that these women are doing so in a sauna in Estonia. As much as we are invested in this community, letting their thoughts and memories out into the world, we are transfixed by their environment. In Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, the Võro community built for women to talk to other women is a sanctuary and such a welcome one.

There are some fantastic pieces of cinematography from Ants Tammink that are positively inspired throughout Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. You have a woman hanging meat up to be smoked in the hut when a group are not there, and that imagery is practically ghostly in how striking it is. With just the use of natural light, we are drawn to the face of the woman working away. Tammink takes a lot of careful care here that even without listening to what is spoken about by the visitors to the hut, you would be drawn into the intimacy of the visuals alone. After that woman is finished hanging the meat, she smokes out of the room. The camera just sits there, static and observant, as the room slowly fills to the point where we cannot see an inch in front of us.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Alexandra Film

This, of course, is just one of countless gorgeous moments throughout Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, a woman bearing her soul about finding a partner with the possibility of it being too late for her. Her head is cut off from the frame, but we see people listening, yet also deep in their own thoughts, with naked bodies filling the rest of the screen. Each frame could be a picture in a gallery; there is just something so wonderfully calming and unbarred about seeing this level of harmony on screen. Such levels of nudity somehow feel intimate but, most importantly, non-voyeuristic. We are confronted with some harrowing stories in this room, which all feel so natural. As if, of course, this is where this woman should talk about it; this is as wonderfully safe a space as you could imagine.

Hint has shown us such a fascinating practice that you become mystified about why it hasn’t broached beyond the Nordic sphere. It is so full of tranquility and feels so healthy and humane that it forces all of those present to let go of their guards so catharsis can come to the fore. It’s fantastic, and Anna Hint shows us the power of nature and the duty of care women have for each other within that Estonian community.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood celebrates as much as it laments, it at times becomes something extraordinary, be it from its stunning cinematography to what it has you think of your own community, how maybe in moving forward, we have lost something as a community, all too willing to go alone and not allow yourself to be held up. Here, our subjects are as one, all the same in that hot, sweaty room, and goodness does it feel empowering to watch. This is a documentary that you won’t have seen the like of before, a documentary about kinship, comfort and openness. Powerful and utterly fantastic, it will blow you away.


Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is showing at the Sea Change Festival on Saturday 23rd September and will be released in UK cinemas on 13th October.

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