Smoke Sauna Sisterhood Review: Anna Hints’s Ethereal Portrait of Healing and Communion

It transmits a profound sense of the communion between people bound by shared hardship.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

The smoke sauna practices of southern Estonia will likely be unfamiliar to most viewers entering the cloistered world of Anna Hints’s Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, and it’s to the film’s credit that any pedagogy it does offer comes only in allusive, piecemeal ways. Some research will reveal that there’s a metaphysical dimension that separates the Estonian spa tradition from that of other cultures, but Hints’s documentary is in no hurry to dispel secrets.

Throughout the immersive Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, Hints centers the experiential qualities of women gathering in a smoke sauna deep in the woods over what appears to be a year of screen time. It focuses particularly on therapeutic sessions of soul-baring conversation undertaken at length in blistering heat. Such epiphanies are the implied intent of the Estonian nature spas, and Hints’s candid presentation of these moments is testament to both her technical commitment and the deep trust that she fosters with her subjects.

Birth, death, childhood trauma, societal prejudices, anatomy, abortion, bad boyfriends, self-actualization, family turmoil, and sexual violence are some of the subjects discussed with often alarming candor by the women featured in the documentary. But despite the specificity of so many of the stories, Hints tends not to reveal the faces of the speakers, a choice that both respects her subjects’ privacy and alludes to the universality of their concerns.

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At times, Hints even includes the disembodied voices of older women during interstitial montages to hint to the continuity between the bathers in front of the film’s camera and those from the past. We learn that childbirth was once conducted in the smoke saunas, and that some communicate with dead loved ones during these sessions—all of which contextualizes the sauna as a primal space for a deeper reflection and recollection than is achievable in daily life.

A sense of the eternal is echoed in the imagery captured by Hints and cinematographer Ants Tammik, which evokes classical 16th- and 17th-century painting. The dark, wooded interior of the sauna is illuminated only by a pair of small, frosted windows, lending the bare bodies on display a sculptural, chiaroscuro quality. But the framing is decidedly modern, as Hints eschews clear portraiture in favor of the kind of abstracted fragmentation that opens Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a reference point further invoked when the women rub sand on their skin (recalling the postwar ash of Alain Resnais’s film) as a defense against the evils of the external world.

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Sweat-soaked flesh is captured with intense tactility by the shallow focus of Hints and Tammik’s digital cameras. And as stories of endurance against the harsh injustices of society carry through Smoke Sauna Sisterhood’s soundtrack, these close studies of skin and bone and hair and nails become charged with meaning—the epidermis inscribed with perseverance.

Despite the choral nature of the film’s narrative, such as it is, one figure does emerge as a loose focal point and audience surrogate. Kadi Kivilo is introduced early as the woman who tends to the forested retreat, stoking the fire that heats the sauna and even cutting a hole in the nearby frozen lake so the women can take soaks between sweat sessions. She’s the only woman noticeably present in every session through the four seasons shown in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, and only once is she shown doing the sharing rather than the listening.

In the absence of many other faces, Kavilo’s is tasked with the heavy expressive lifting, and she proves a worthy candidate for such sustained attention. Self-effacing empathy, deep concern, amusement, horror, and ecstasy wash over Kavilo’s face over the course of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood as she registers the alternately wistful and distressing anecdotes of her sisters in smoke. The patience of the film’s editing speaks to the comprehensiveness of Kavilo’s commitment and her almost preternatural ability to ignore the camera crew.

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In giving Kavilo a central presence and returning periodically to her errands around the sauna grounds, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood might superficially resemble a more character-driven documentary. Ultimately, though, its commitment to the textural qualities of the sauna aligns it closer to the experiential non-narrative documentaries of the Sensory Ethnography Lab. That kinship is only strengthened by the project-specific technical innovations required to make the shoot possible, such as the camera rig modifications to shield from overheating.

As in films like Leviathan and Manakamana, Hints aims to capture an environment from the inside out, even if it means sacrificing some of the more process-oriented elements expected of a traditional documentary. In this case, we never fully grasp the idiosyncratic process by which the sauna is heated, nor do we witness quite how it’s maintained or how it’s used jointly as an oven for smoked ham. But what Hints does transmit is more immediate and powerful: an experience of profound communion between people bound by shared hardship and stirred to therapeutic conversation in ways only a particular set of atmospheric conditions can inspire.

Score: 
 Director: Anna Hints  Screenwriter: Anna Hints  Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment  Running Time: 89 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2023

Carson Lund

Carson Lund's debut feature as a DP and producer is Ham on Rye. He also writes for the Harvard Film Archive and is the frontman of L.A.-based chamber pop duo Mines Falls.

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