David Millington reviews “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” – an Estonian documentary by Anna Hints about women who come together in the protective darkness of the smoke sauna, an important part of the Estonian cultural heritage.
As a child in Australia in the late eighties, I knew of saunas as a vaguely dirty thing: from my mother’s vague hints, men went to them to meet other men, in a way that she refused to explain. Living in western Germany, saunas were a thing from East Germany, or vaguely associated with “free body culture” that had become an aphorism for brothels.
To my American colleagues, when I mention spending the weekends with friends and having a sauna, I’m met with polite puzzlement, and I would never mention in a “safe for work” conversation that I am with my friends while naked: the fear is that the image of naked, sweaty people, possibly whipping each other with branches in the gloom, is somehow to the people of that non-Nordic Hollywood-bodied densely-citied prurient nation redolent of sexuality.
Yet in Estonia, a sauna is a part of life. And nothing could be less sexual, or more speak to the difference between sex and nudity, than a sauna.
A true sauna – and here I don’t mean the ones in apartments with infirm electric heaters covered in Ikea-like rounded stones, saunas that are never used and end up with the seating used as bathroom storage – a true sauna is out in a garden or the forest, in a wooden hut the outer planks of which have gone grey with age; a sauna heated by a meter-deep iron fireplace fired with long birch logs and that holds heat, a deep heat, in a tangible mass that radiates completely unlike the weak wet wires of an electric heating coil; a sauna where a faint, tiny tang of smoke has come through from the sealed fire due to its age and repeated heating and cooling, and mixes with the odour of warm clean wood as you sit; a sauna where you know the hottest corner; a sauna where you hear the spitting hiss as water is splashed on the rough stones and the leil, the steam, rises in a sharp wave that rolls, invisibly, like boiling surf and you hold your breath for a few seconds until it fades.
I don’t tend to talk much in a sauna, but they are social places. Even in silence, a sauna is a communal thing, what some people might call, poetically, a ritual. You sweat out the day, sweat out the stress. Poison vanishes from your mind, and from your body. And – human creatures that we are, we experience the heat and healing with our friends.
It’s not a film about a sauna, but about womanhood
I write this long introduction to the sauna because I feel that those who don’t come from or live in an Estonia-like country don’t understand what a sauna means.
And in “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood”, the director, Anna Hints, uses the communal, human nature of a traditional Estonian smoke sauna, the most ancient of the types of sauna, as a way to share stories, stories of what it is to be a woman.
This is not a film about saunas. It is a film about womanhood. The meaning of a sauna, the environment and ritual, provides the space for Hints to communicate the meaning of the film.
This foreignness comes through in reviews online. Variety writes it is a film of the “elemental: fire, wood, water and lots of naked female flesh”, a gratuitous description that in response caused the writing of the above introduction.
It is not a film of flesh, even though everyone is naked. It is, perhaps, a movie about bodies. Or illness, or gratitude.
Nor is it elemental. The fire and water are almost incidental. It is, maybe, a film about trust.
It is not a film about love, despite discussing it. It is a film about relationships.
It is not a film about friendship, although the women filmed must be good and long-term friends. It is, perhaps, a film about compassion.
It is not a film about sex. It is a film about acceptance; about awkwardness; about penises; about those with whom you find intimacy; and, in its most difficult and most courageous parts, about both physical and sexual assault.
It is not a film about rituals, although we see the lighting of the fire, the spread of water on the stones, and picking plants for the whisk or besom. It is a film about scrubbing your skin with salt, and the expulsion of pain.
It is not a film about a sauna. It is a film about being female.
All the description above is in terms of contrast, about what the film is not as much as what it is. So let me tell you what it is.
The movie has extraordinary cinematography: the inside of the sauna, typically lit through only a small window, is a cinematography of chiaroscuro. We see bodies, faces and skin in beautiful light among shadow and mist. It is filmed almost entirely inside the sauna itself, a tiny space, and the exceptions are the lake and forest the sauna itself is beside. The entire film takes place within a few meters of the same location. Every person visible onscreen, plus the director, is female: there are no men in this movie.
The movie opens with a long single shot of an infant suckling at one breast. Both child and mother are naked. From the beginning you understand you are seeing bodies not as clothed, not as erotic, but as the practical, physical homes of people. There is no shame. There is presence.
We see the forest: a cycle of winter through the autumn, of a lake and sunshine and rain.
It is a movie, strongly, about female experience.
In whole, this is a movie of conversations. Mostly verbal, among ritual and cleansing, the women move from casual conversations about their lives through to confession. It is a movie of stories.
This is what gives the movie its power.
This is a film of compassion. Some other movies are targeted at drama, in the goal of demonstrating humanity by causing the viewer to feel pain. This movie is about humanity, and empathy, which is humanity. In this sauna, we see the friends listening as much as we see the speaker telling their stories. We too, as viewers, are holding their hand, compassionate and understanding. And it is a powerful way to share both laughter and horror: there is an intimacy in being invited into this small, shared space. You feel the sense of being there with them, of being one of those people who can listen, be silent, be compassionate, be human.
It is also a film of humour. And even in the most difficult parts, the filmmaker is kind to the viewer. There are pauses. Long shots of the forest, the lake, of nature on its beautiful, extraordinary days.
A film all men should see
Leaving the cinema, one person considered their view of the film, before stating, “It was very Estonian.” And it is. Be aware, it is an adult film despite its rating. But it is also a film that, if you are prepared for a documentary, for laughter and horror, for illness and ritual, for heat and ice, and above all for gentleness, for a kind eye to all these things, everyone should see.
This is a film all men should see.
In January, Anna Hints won the directing award in the World Cinema Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival for “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood”.