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Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Estonian women tell their life stories, share their joys and pains, purge their demons, and make peace with themselves inside a tiny, steamy sauna - live from the 40th Munich Film Festival


We never learn the names of the four women who share their most profound and intimate secrets with us for 89 minutes. We see their naked bodies in minute, graphic detail, thorough a number of extreme close-ups. Their skin dappled with tiny condensation droplets. A large breast collapsing to the sides while still confidently pointing upwards. A cleavage with nothing to conceal. Creases and stretch marks revealing that these characters are no longer in the spring of their lives. There are no gynaecological shots. This is a movie about reconciliation with the female body, with all of its magnificent imperfections.

The season is winter, and the sauna is located inside a little wooden cottage in the woods. At times, the women alternative between the extreme heat and the extreme cold, by jumping in the freezing waters of the local lake only to run back into the protection of the sauna (something I have done myself several times during my regular trips to the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, in Northern Estonia). It is in this hot, womb-like environment, filmed with a warm yellow light, that they share the stories, anecdotes, innermost secrets and fears (particularly the most embarrassing moments of their youth).

A big woman – whose body does not conform to the strict, inhumane beauty standards imposed on females – has some of the most moving accounts to tell. Her mother overtly described her as “ugly”, insisting that she focussed on her studies and career instead. It took a long time before she felt beautiful. She was raped, but her parents failed to believe that anyone would want to violate such an unattractive woman. We learn that she nearly lost her life, in one shocking revelation that begets a few moments of silence.

The pains, the taboos and the feelings of shame associated abortion are also a prominent topic. Giving birth to a lifeless child is a traumatising experience. Another woman describes how she overcame the fear of dying that paralysed her upon being diagnosed with breast cancer. “They have removed many parts of my body, but they cannot take away my soul”, she asserts. Another one describes her Lesbian coming-out to her nonplussed parents. She says that Estonians are frugal with words and emotions, and excessive care towards others (even if that person is your own child) is often frowned upon. But not all is doom and gloom. A woman describes a sexual interaction with a man who demanded that she begs for his penis, eliciting giggling and laughter from our unusual sorority. At times, the smoke conjures up the image of a female ghost, who provides or characters with some sort of spiritual healing.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a gentle, candid and lyrical endeavour. Lyrical in both senses of the word: 1) the cinematography expresses emotions is a mystical and poetic way, always enveloped by smoke and steam (verdant trees, moving water and snowy landscapes offer the perfect backdrop); and 2) the film is lightly enwrapped in soothing and melodic music. There’s an accordion, airy strings and distant choirs. A Estonian folk song is performed on- and off-screen, with the filmmaker Anna Hints intoning a few verses inside the movie theatre just before the film commenced. This is an ode to the female body that will enrapture with a genuine sense of our humanity, our fallibilities, and indeed our mortality. Despite the relative darkness of the sauna, these women emanate enough hope and joie-de-vivre to illuminate up even the murkiest of hearts.

Unesco has inscribed the Võrumaa smoke sauna tradition on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The organisation explains: “The smoke sauna tradition is an important part of everyday life in the Võro community of Estonia. It comprises a rich set of traditions including the actual bathing customs, the skills of making bath whisks, building and repairing saunas, and smoking meat in the sauna.”

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood showed at the 40th Munich Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year in Sundance, where i won the Best Director Award in the World Documentary category.

By Victor Fraga - 24-06-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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