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Smoke Sauna Sisterhood - Healing, cleansing and unburdening in an Estonian sauna

Wednesday 27 September 2023, by Robin W. Mac

The documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (d. Anna Hints) almost entirely takes place in a smoke sauna in Vana-Võromaa, South-East Estonia. In the sauna a group of women come together to purify, cleanse, heal and converse. Opening with haunting chants in a fairy-tail woodland and wisps of smoke, I was reminded of Midsommar, and ignorantly wondered if this Smoke Sauna Sisterhood was going to be a matriarchal cult, albeit in rural Estonia not Sweden.

While the documentary deals with the sinister spectre of misogyny, the sisterhood is just that - a sisterhood, not an insular sect, and the sauna a safe space to share. What struck me most was that the sauna - recognised by UNESCO on their list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity - is seen as a purification ritual physically but also psychologically. The smoke sauna is described as a “sacred place where you cleanse yourself” and the women ask the water to “take the pain away.” It is a steamy confessional and a form of therapy for these women, who share their memories, anxieties, secrets and the traumas they have faced. The documentary revolves around women talking - and would make for a fitting double-bill with the Sarah Polley film. How women have been put on display and prized for beauty contrasts with their un self-conscious bodies, which ironically intercuts with meat being hung to smoke in the very same sauna. Naked together, without shame or fear from their fellow bathers and the camera, they come together in this cleansing ritual and share their experiences. Ruminating on frequent feminist topics - a woman’s right to choose, sexuality, romantic relationships, domestic violence, unrealistic beauty standards, intergenerational trauma, sexual assault, birth and motherhood. The women are comfortable talking and sharing often taboo topics. In particular, there is a very distressing moment where a participant vividly details being raped and how the men who found her after treated her as a sexual object, not the victim of a violent crime. I found it disturbing to passively watch this unfold in such an intimate setting, feeling like you were there in the sauna, and if you were, you would comfort the crying survivor. However, it did not feel salacious or intrusive, for her, the sauna serves as a place of comfort to unburden this memory with trusted friends.

While the majority of the documentary takes place in a sauna full of naked women, it never feels voyeuristic. You are a guest of these Estonian women, sharing in their stories that are sadly experienced by women globally. Oftentimes, the women giggle like schoolgirls when discussing sensitive topics; these women care for each other and use the sauna as a place to “take away the pain” through talking together. Director Anna Hints has so carefully captured a snapshot of these women’s experiences and the sanctuary the sauna offers them and most likely for generations of women before.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is screening as part of the upcoming FragmentsFestival.

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