PALM SPRINGS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2024 REVIEW! In the dimly lit, wooden confines of a sauna, ethereal light, and vapor dance upon the form of a woman. Her breasts, stomach, waist, and head (resting serenely on another’s lap) are bathed in the soft yellow glow of the sauna’s only window. Shortly, a group of these unclothed, perspiring women will be bound together through a sparse forest. Their play culminates with a plunge into the icy waters of a nearby lake. The image–the entire process–produces a sense of timeless romanticism.
Director Anna Hints, immersed in the imagery and ‘art’ of documentary filmmaking, transcends mere aesthetics in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. Through her lens, Hint renders the feminine subject with familiar reverence and mystique. However, she also affords the woman a voice—a privilege not often bestowed.
In Vana Võromaa, in Southeast Estonia, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood emerges as an intimate exploration of feminine socialization, where platonic sisterhood is cultivated within the confines of the smoke sauna. Hints masterfully capture women at their most vulnerable, stripped, literally but figuratively, of their defenses, allowing the sauna’s intense heat to weave its transformative magic. As their bodies expel salt and liquid, a simultaneous mental purging occurs. As viewers, we are active participants in this intimate ritual and not mere observers.
“…an intimate exploration of feminine socialization, where platonic sisterhood is cultivated within the confines of the smoke sauna.”
Ants Tammik, lead cinematographer, imbues the film’s visual language with themes of intimacy and sexuality. Guided by Hints, these elements are meticulously balanced to reinforce a profound sense of reality. In our introduction to the women of the sauna, the dimly lit, sweat-covered forms exude an undeniable sensuality. Framed in a manner that is traditionally masculine and patriarchal, Tammik lingers on disembodied nudity, accentuating their buttocks, breasts, and thighs. In these moments, the women resemble slabs of meat, hung in the smokehouse to dry.
However, attention is pulled from their bodies as the women begin to speak. From obsessive mothers and neverending comparisons to siblings to the unyielding pilgrimage of feeling beautiful, the film delicately juxtaposes women’s individual experiences with the universality of womanhood. Before our eyes, the ‘explicit’ nature of the female body transforms into something else. Intimate, yes, and private, but not shameful and not for consumption. We watch as objectification is unmasked.
"…does not negate the male gaze. Rather, it asserts the feminine."