A remarkable new film, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, is an engrossing meditation on life, gender, and kinship. It's the work of Anna Hints, who hails from Estonia. It took the Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary at Sundance 2023, and the honor is well deserved.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is serious and deliberate, a languid, sensuous portrait of a quasi-religious ritual. There is no narrative per se, and its form reveals much about communal humanity.
The film opens with a woman, alone, laboriously chopping a square hole into the ice of a lake. Inside a nearby mountain cabin, a group of women -- it's never clear (or important) how many -- linger in a sauna. It's dark in there, and the camera stays in close on the contours of nude body parts, shadows, and steam while disembodied voices chat. We rarely see the speaker but rather the listener. Those same basking bodies, still naked, go out to the hole in the lake and lower themselves into the freezing water. Then back again for more sweltering in the steam.
This ritual is known as the Vana-Võromaa (region in South Estonia) smoke sauna tradition known as "savvusanna kombõ," one of "connecting family and friends to cleanse body and soul inside a place of peace and contemplation." In that way it’s reminiscent of Into Great Silence, the 2005 documentary about the practices of the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse.
The women are mature, their flesh firm as befits their ages. In the steam, they reveal secrets and impart intimacies: loves children, Tinder (!), missed opportunities, shame, miscarriages, and cancers. One confesses a lifelong attraction to another, so far unrequited. Another talks about losing her hair to chemo and part of her breast in a mastectomy. She is undeterred. "Quite a few organs have been cut from me," she says, "…the soul cannot be cut away."
Bodies drift by as if in a dream. The camera caresses the warm tones, the corpus, and the shadows. Smoke rises. In between steams, the women work chopping wood, butchering meat, and preparing repasts. They bathe and shower. They scrub each other and exfoliate. They chant.
The film begs comparison to the recent Women Talking but is less contrived and more honest than that slicker production. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood's exposition is rather the implications of textures and emotions.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is an absorbing hour and a half that can stand to be longer. You inhale it as much as you watch it, take it in, and it goes directly to your heart.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. Directed by Anna Hints. 2023. Distributed by Greenwich Entertainment. In Estonian with English subtitles. In theaters. 89 minutes.