In a log-cabin sauna nestled in pretty woods by a lake, a setting straight off the top of a chocolate box, a group of women gather on and off through the changing seasons to sweat out their secrets and heal each other with heat, talk and arcane sauna-based rituals. It is a practise so specific to the Voro community of Estonia that it joins Cuba’s rum makers, Turkey’s coffee culture and suchlike on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, a fact revealed at the end of Anna Hint’s lovely feature doc debut “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood.” And it feels exactly right, given that the small, smoky, steamy miracle of this film is how it creates something so intangible, so lyrical, from the absolutely elemental: fire, wood, water and lots of naked female flesh.
Part of the film’s transcendent appeal is the result of specific formal choices made by Hints, the deserving winner of the directing award in the World Cinema Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival. The soundscape is precise and evocative: Shivery samples of Edvard Egilsson’s otherworldly choral score intermingle with the quiet, almost eerie airiness of the woodland setting, water splashed and hissing on the coals and murmured conversations made conspiratorial by the strange, secretive reverb in this small enclosed space.
Ants Tammik’s camerawork is similarly inspired, especially in the framing of the women’s bodies which are displayed without prudery but also without prurience, and usually only partially — backs, breasts, bellies, chins propped on knees. Often, we do not see the face of the woman who is speaking, and instead watch her words received by someone else. But sometimes, as with one late monologue, we are watching the speaker, and her head and shoulders are lit so that the effect is almost surreal. Hovering against the enveloping darkness, she might be floating in space.
But the main conduit for this sense of the film as something intangibly greater than the sum of its parts is the feeling of community it establishes, for which the women themselves are responsible. We don’t necessarily get to know them as individuals, despite how intimately personal and sometimes harrowing their shared stories are. Instead, Hints lets their soft chatter narrate a kind of choral experience of modern womanhood.
Some of it is absurd: They laugh about dick pics and awkward sexual encounters. Some of it is universal, as they return again and again to the subject of motherhood and all the ways our mothers love us and hurt us and screw us up. And some of it is desperately moving. One woman weeps as she recounts her rape as a teenager; another describes, in painful, extraordinary detail, the process of having to give birth to a baby who had already died. She was glad that she did it this way, rather than have a c-section, she muses, because the anguish of labor meant that “part of the pain [of grief] was already burnt away.”
Too much of this intense, naked truth-telling could become overwhelming, but “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood,” for all the trauma and stress it touches on, remains light on its feet, interspersing the talkier sections with quiet interludes where we observe the hut from afar, or watch with forensic interest as the fire is lit and blown carefully to life in the morning, or follow the women in winter, dunking themselves, shivering and laughing, into a hole cut in the deep surface ice of the lake to cool off. The sauna also doubles as a smokehouse, and is used to cure meat. On days when no one is visiting, in lieu of human flesh, large, heavy hunks of fatty pork trussed up with string hang from the rafters.
But mostly we are inside the tiny wooden room with the women, almost as though we’re sitting right there alongside them, dipping our hands into the cup of warm water that’s passed around, and feeling the heated, scented air draw all the toxins from our bodies. There is also a mystical aspect to this tradition, with chants and incantations, while sometimes one of the women will perform a kind of ritual over another, brushing away bad spirits with a bushel of leaves or a handful of rubbing salt. During one particularly ghostly story, the light spills through the hut’s wooden slats in such a way it briefly creates the image of a woman’s face in the smoke.
But the real magic of “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is nothing supernatural. It is simply the way that Hints’ film invites us to be part of this supportive, witty, sweaty collective, which feels like it operates on the most practical yet optimistic of assumptions: that with the application of enough heat and fellowship, everything painful can be soothed and everything dirty can be made clean.