CW: This article refers to issues relating to violence, misogyny, sexual assault, and abortion.
Wood-fired smoke engulfs the entire body as it circulates through a chimneyless log-cabin. The Estonian smoke sauna is a place of healing, both physically and spiritually. It is also the vehicle through which Anna Hints’ feature length documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood explores the glory of collective femininity.
Intimate secrets and deep traumas rise to the surface, as a group of women gather inside the sweat inducing four walls. The resulting film relies on an assiduously crafted visual language — noticeably shaped by the female gaze — that repositions and desexualises the audience’s interpretation of the nude female body. It is from this position, that the audience is invited in, given intimate access to the kind of sisterhood that can only be forged within the smoke-sauna.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood opens with a freezing scene. Amidst the snow and what could only be negative temperatures, a woman strenuously digs a hole in the ice where an après sauna polar plunge will later take place. The Estonian smoke sauna tradition dates back to the 13th century and as the documentary demonstrates, has remained largely unchanged. Underscored by hours of laborious preparation, the sauna is prepared by heating stones atop a roaring wood fire. When the stones are ready, the smoke is ventilated out a small window and the sauna process can commence. To maintain the maximal heat (between 70-100 degrees celsius), the stones are tended to, with water being poured over them unleashing a visceral hiss. When ready, the women take their positions, some lying flat, some seated and one meticulously caring for the sauna’s maintenance.
We see the faces of some, just the breasts of others and only the hands of many. It is unclear if they are known to each other or complete strangers, and these women range in age and experience, but they exhibit a common state of ease within the sauna. Each takes their chance to speak, simultaneously absorbing the heat and sweating out the pain attached to the experience they have decided to divulge. The first story is shared by an older woman, who recalls being told she was ugly from a young age. In a deliberate decision, the audience cannot see her face, only her naked body from the neck down. Though this is a little jarring at first, the audience has no choice but to settle into the comfortability that these women clearly have with their bodies.
Intensely personal stories of family violence, misogyny, sexual assault, abortion and coming out, are juxtaposed with the traditional practices associated with the smoke sauna experience. These practices involve the chanting of words such as “out” and “off” in what appears to be a sincere belief in the sauna’s capacity to expel the bad spirits from the bodies of the women. A process of reciprocity reveals itself, as the women tend to each other for each custom. Whisking — the thrashing of young birch branches — is said to banish the bad spirits whilst delivering health benefits to the recipient. A salt scrub promotes the circulation of blood and exfoliates the body for an added advantage. Most unnerving is the practice that sees 5 or 6 women taking a leisurely stroll, in nothing but snow boots, towards their pre-prepared ice pool. They plunge their bodies and react, in a way that seems to me to be remarkably subdued and stoical, considering how cold the water must have been. The significance of this intimately supportive atmosphere is made clear when contrasted with comments from one woman that reflect on women as a resource for exploitation.
Despite these insights into this culturally rich Estonian tradition, the documentary’s most important offering is a prompt for reflection. As the desensitisation to the naked body progresses, I found myself relaxing into the idea that women are not defined by their bodies. However, each story shared by the women interrupted this. They served as an explicit interruption to this false sense of ease, reminding me that the body is a place that is unwaveringly subjected to patriarchal control.
The score of body percussion and the motif of ritualistic chanting grounds this experience in an outside world, characterised by its disconnect from the society where all their trauma resides. These women retreat to the sauna to safely divulge their gendered experiences and physically and spiritually cleanse it from themselves and each other. As the film nears a close, the chanting resumes, this time the women yell “we sweat out all this pain, we sweat out all that fear”. They may be separated by generations, but they all have something in common. That is what they take away from the sauna.