Smoke Sauna Sisterhood |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Anna Hints, Estonia, France, Iceland, 2023, 89 mins

Cast: Kadi Kivilo

Review by Ben Thomas

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, directed by Anna Hints, is a spiritual and therapeutic journey within. The film is predominantly minimal and verbal in its form, but elevates itself in its soulful and vulnerable storytelling: focusing on fear, trauma, pain and healing.

The film is confessional in nature, but transcends the need to offer advice or explain away people’s experiences. The women often just sit and listen. At its core, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is led by intuitions and emotions, searching for a raw authenticity that eschews rehearsals and corrections. The film is beautifully gentle, landing on voices and bodies that perfectly reveal the depth of human life: both conscious and unconscious.

The smoke sauna was a process that the director remembers from her childhood. Her family would go to the smoke sauna before important occasions, weddings and funerals for example, and seek peace, healing and restoration. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is based on these sauna-based rituals carried out by the women of the Voro community of Estonia, who appear on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. The rituals are about the release—the sweating out—of pain, shame and fear, starting at the surface and moving inwards. The sauna is the non-judgemental space to share emotions and experiences, to go deeper and heal physically and spiritually.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood works primarily because of the deep understanding the director has of the rituals and the candidness with which the women share their stories and feelings. The women cover breast cancer, miscarriage, periods, ugliness and rape, as the camera often holds intently on the listeners rather than the speakers. The women’s nude bodies are shot with awe and care, and the director makes sure to avoid sexualisation and objectification. The sisterhood had a voice in the editing process, and the film feels like a genuine and sensitive collaborative endeavour. The film has an overwhelming sense of safety as the smoke drifts in between body parts and across faces.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood exemplifies tender filmmaking. It is one part meditative and another part active in its healing, with rich moment after rich moment emerging over the course of its hour and a half runtime. The film is filled with laughter, in spite of some of the subject matter, as the women participate in a genuine enjoyment of each other’s presence. It is this laughter that stays with you: sober, strained, painful, knowing, beautiful laughter. It is the sound of fear, shame and pain leaving and being replaced by something entirely more rejuvenating.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, directed by Anna Hints, had its UK premiere last Thursday at Sheffield Documentary Festival.

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