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SUNDANCE 2023 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Review: Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

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- Estonia’s Anna Hints makes her documentary feature debut with an earnest and affecting piece that examines the magic of a traditional smoke sauna and those who partake in it

Review: Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Those who do not reside in the Nordic or Baltic countries probably find it mildly ridiculous when faced with the idea of the sauna being something sacred, with clichés of cramped gym and urban leisure-centre sweatboxes abounding for the uninitiated. But with UNESCO placing the Southern Estonian county of Võrumaa’s smoke-sauna tradition on the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, it shows how integral that sauna is to the lives of many people and societies. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood [+see also:
trailer
interview: Anna Hints
film profile
]
, Anna Hints’ feature-length documentary debut, screening in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition, is, on the one hand, a celebration of the sauna, exploring the rituals and folklore that lie behind the experience. But it’s also a paean to the healing power of the smoke sauna – as much spiritually as physically – and the inner strength of the protagonists who attend it.

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In this place, women sit around and partake in the unique experience. The heat rises, naked bodies drip with sweat, and backs are hit with birch twigs. But as their bodies are cleansed, with the heat of the sauna and the cold ponds in the snow outside working as a unique pair, the women find time to reveal their stories. Stories of sadness, of terrible sexual assaults and profound loss, of confused sexuality and utter despair. But there are also tales of humorous sexual encounters, of love and of hope. In the sauna, there is no judgement: just acceptance. The soul will be as cleansed as the body.

Hints manages to create an ethereal and magical space in a film that demands to be experienced on a big screen and with an audience. In what is obviously an extraordinary technical achievement (Hints has revealed in interviews that people thought the cameras would never be able to cope with the heat of the sauna), one often feels that one is there, in the sauna, and – by suggestion alone – one would expect some audience members to feel their temperature rise. Thanks to the clever cinematography from Ants Tammik, the film plays with the anonymity afforded by this place. The shadows, the wisps of smoke and the glistening of pink skin all create an abstract beauty, a space that is safe and unknown, yet free and welcoming.

The candour of the protagonists is often moving, and their stories are heart-rending. Indeed, as much as it is an examination of the smoke-sauna experience, it is also a staunchly feminist document. With many of the stories of female subjugation, the underlying subtext concerns a society that still has much to learn about gender equality. But there is also a togetherness, a bond that offers hope for a brighter tomorrow for a new generation.

There are certain parallels between the sauna and the cinema. They are both places of collective darkness, where we come together to listen and learn, and – when the circumstances are right – we come out of the experience much better than we were when we went in. Those seeing Smoke Sauna Sisterhood will certainly feel uplifted upon seeing it.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is an Estonian-French-Icelandic co-production staged by Alexandra Film, Kepler 22 Production and Ursus Parvus. Its international sales are handled by Autlook Filmsales.

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