Sometimes it’s odd when works of art feel as if they were made to co-exist. The 2022-2023 Oscar season featured continual discussions of Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, a film where women discussed the harms men do to them. While it was a fictional tale, the stories are too common to ignore. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Estonia, women were having a similar conversation. Director Anna Hints gained the women’s trust, who reveal their deepest secrets (and bodies) for the camera. Throughout Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, she lets the women speak their truth in the comfort of other women.
In Estonia, women traditionally go to Sauna huts to cleanse themselves with other women. In these cleansing sessions, women strip nude and reveal their darkest stories. This way, each member shares their soul and body with every woman on the trip. Not only does this work as a bonding exercise, but it forces the therapeutic release of the things we carry with us.
Throughout Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, there are harrowing stories. Yet the mere expulsion of these narratives serves to heal the group, creating a sharing circle that allows for honest discussion. In many cases, its quite clear that the women have never told a soul about their rape or abortion. In others, they suffer from domestic abuse or psychological control. There’s a universality to each story, and Hints captures the tales without showing the faces of the women revealing their truths.
This makes for some stunning camerawork and creative use of limited lighting. While we see the bodies of these women from the neck down, we rarely see a face. This is the kind of touch that would likely only come from a woman. After all, showing their nude bodies (including faces) may jeopardize their safety or relationships.
Yet even with Hints and her team tying a hand behind their back, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood looks gorgeous. The ways she captures the female body are like that of a painter. Hints and her team are every bit as interested in exploring the images they can capture in the physiques of these women. This is never sexual but instead represents a fact of life.
By shooting from the neck down, the message is clear. Despite their distance from each other and our lack of awareness about their pre-existing relationships, each woman carries similar stories. The already universal take on extra weight in this context.
A seemingly unassuming documentary that begins with light stories, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood quickly becomes a poignant work of art. While Women Talking may be more familiar to American audiences, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood tells stories that will rock you to your core. The impeccable cinematography only adds to the beauty of the film. Hints has a promising career ahead of her with films like this one.