At a secluded sauna somewhere in southern Estonia, a group of women bare themselves - literally, of course, but also figuratively, revealing long-held secrets, revisiting old hurts and finally freeing themselves of the guilt that has shaped their lives. Raw and intimate, Anna Hints' 89-minute-long film is a startling achievement, a tidal wave of emotion that builds and builds into a crashing catharsis. While most documentaries thrive on the strength of their story, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is powerful simply because it accords a group of women the space to tell theirs.
Hints and cinematographer Ants Tammik linger on parts of the women's bodies inside the dim room - a thigh here, a pair of breasts there, a belly. The gaze isn't sexual, but empathetic. These bodies are the maps on which the history of these women's lives has been written. As they talk, their experiences convey a world that has reduced them to the sum of their parts. Their bodies have been the site of shame, pain, violation, illness. One woman talks of having to grow up in the shadow of her prettier sister, who their father described as "something handmade". Another talks about her body hair falling out, a fragment of conversation that's revealed to be about chemotherapy sessions. Several of them speak of complicated relationships with their mothers, the traits they've internalised from them, the tics they see only in hindsight. They talk of the lessons they've learned, the lessons they've worked hard to forget.In contrast to the languidness of the sauna experience, their words pour out in a rush, a confessional stream in danger of ebbing if the speakers pause to think about or second-guess their words for too long. There's a despair and darkness to the documentary but also a great deal of lightness. The women's voices remain steady, they slip into impressions of their family members. "Who exactly is photographing them?," one woman squeals, on the topic of dick pics. Later, the room dissolves into helpless laughter at the mention of "Fluffy", the name one of the women has given her private parts. The sauna is simultaneously a sacred space and one of irreverence, one of intimacy and yet, utter openness. The stories are simultaneously personal and universal. Whatever judgment the women have faced outside, it doesn't carry over through the sauna doors. There's not an ounce of self-consciousness to any of them as they sit, splayed out and tell their stories of coming out, falling in love, experiencing loss.
The camera knows when to draw back, affording the women privacy by leaving their faces out of the shot or framing them as silhouettes. The visuals cease to matter, so evocatively are the stories narrated. "A lump came out in a toilet in Helsinki," is how one woman describes her abortion, the loneliness of her circumstances palpable even before she follows it up with, "A man can give you the money, but you have to go through with it." A story of stillbirth is heartbreaking. "The baby was very beautiful," is how the mother remembers it. "She was still warm. Then slowly, she started to get colder." Smoke Sauna Sisterhood paints pain as physical, mental, generational and even cultural. Caring in Estonia is seen as a weakness, they explain, as the documentary draws a line from the lack of love that defined their childhood to the touching counterpoint of this found family. Pain can be isolating, but there's a strength that only comes from knowing others understand.
Some stories play out as voiceovers set to scenes in which the women massage each other with leaves or scrub soap onto each other's backs. These visuals defy the narratives - to hear the body described as a site of so much loss, then to see see it caressed and loved, comforted and held with care. The documentary's impressive ability to capture atmosphere - the creeping tendrils of smoke, the hiss of the water as it hits the wet stones, the sweat dripping off these women -creates an immersive experience, allowing the audience too to share in these women's lives.
Hints breaks up the heaviness of the stories with scenes of the women cooking or dancing to the sounds of an accordion. Outside, the seasons change. Leaves fall, the rain patters, it snows. The world will carry on as before, seems to be the depressing implication. But in ending the documentary with the sounds of laughter, Hints lets us know that at least these women have been irrevocably changed.