Sex, birth, death… the whole cycle of life is reflected in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. Shot in an Estonian retreat, Anna Hints’ affecting debut moves to the rhythm of rituals and chants as the smoke sauna is heated and bathers whisk their bodies with plants, before witnessing intimate discussions between a group of women. Speaking individually, they talk openly and honestly about body image, the expectations of their parents, sexuality, dreams, trauma.
While a traditional doc might pull back and show the big picture – both literally and figuratively – this one zooms in on its subjects, showing fragments of bodies dripping in steam and sweat. Often they are intermingled, but this is about sisterhood, not sex. This is a tender portrayal of women in a safe space where they can let it all hang out without fear of the judgement that so frequently comes up in conversation.
Some describe painful comments about their bodies that marked them as they grew up. One talks about coming out, and the cruel reaction of the woman she confessed her love for. There is a devastating account of a rape.
This is a tender portrayal of women in a safe space where they can let it all hang out
Most of the women’s faces are tactfully obscured as they speak, but their words – even in subtitles – are riveting, whether they are disturbing, inspiring or funny. Yes, there is laughter here as well as tears: many watching will giggle along, recognising the release of sharing embarrassing stories, and the bonding that comes from realising you are not alone.
The one face that is shown is that of Kadi Kivilo, the sauna keeper. The camera often rests on her as she listens silently to testimonies, sometimes smiling, sometimes with eyes shut, feeling the pain. We don’t hear the questions, or the structure of any sessions – just the stories.
While some audiences might be wary of its touch-feely concept, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood’s hypnotic storytelling has the ability to lure you in and keep you hooked. It’s a powerful watch, even if you're not the kind of person who’s happy to strip off and sweat away with strangers. And whatever your gender, it might inspire frank conversations afterwards – fully clothed or otherwise.
In UK cinemas Oct 13.