In a log cabin sauna nestled in a beautiful forest next to a lake, close to the top of a chocolate box, a group of women gather between the changing seasons to sweat their secrets and heal each other with heat, talking, and occult sauna-based rituals. It’s such a practice for Estonia’s Voro community that it joins Cuban rum makers, Turkey’s coffee culture and the like on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list, a fact revealed at the end of Anna Hint’s stellar musical debut “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” . Which feels just right, because the small, smoky, steamy miracle of this movie is how it creates something so intangible and so lyrical out of the absolute basics: fire, wood, water, and plenty of naked female flesh.
Part of the film’s over-the-top appeal is the result of select official selections made by Hints, the well-deserved winner of the Directing Award in the World Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival. The soundscape is subtle and evocative: shiver samples of Edward Eagleson’s other choral tunes mingle with the quiet, almost eerie air of a woodland setting, dripping water and hissing on coals and murky conversations made plotting through the strange and secretive hesitation in this enclosed little space.
Likewise, the photography of tamek ants is inspired, particularly in the framing of women’s bodies which are shown unguarded but also without itch, usually only partially—back, breast, stomach, chin resting on the knees. Often, we don’t see the face of the woman speaking, and instead we watch her words being received by someone else. But sometimes, as with one late monologue, we watch the speaker, her head and shoulders light up so that the effect is almost surreal. Hovering against the darkness that surrounds her, she may be floating in space.
But the main conduit for this sense of film as something intangibly greater than the sum of its parts is the sense of community it creates, and 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, the Hints allow their soft vocals to narrate a kind of choral experience of modern womanhood.
Some of them are absurd: They laugh at pictures of penises and embarrassing sexual encounters. Some of them are universal, returning again and again to the theme of motherhood and all the ways our mothers love, hurt, and spoil us. Some are desperately moving. a woman weeps as she recounts her teenage rape; Another describes, in excruciating and unusual detail, the process of giving birth to a child who had already died. She was glad she did it that way, instead of having a caesarean section, she says, because labor pains mean that “part of the pain [of grief] It was already burnt.”
So much intense, naked truth-telling can become overwhelming, but The Smoke Sauna Sisters, for all the shock and tension that touches it, remains light on its feet, punctuating speaking parts with quiet interludes as we observe the shack from afar, or watch with forensic interest. Where a fire is carefully kindled and blown in the morning, or women follow in winter, dipping themselves, shivering and laughing, into a hole dug in the ice of the deep lake surface to cool off. Sauna is also used as a smoker, and used to cure meat. On days when nobody visits, instead of human flesh, large, heavy lumps of fatty pork are attached to a string suspended from the rafters.
But mostly we are inside a small wooden room with the women, as if we were sitting there beside them, dipping our hands in the cup of warm water that was passing around us, and feeling the hot, fragrant air drawing all the toxins out of our bodies. There is also a mystical aspect to this tradition, with chants and incantations, while sometimes one woman will perform some sort of ritual over the other, removing evil spirits with a bushel of leaves or a handful of salt. During one particularly ghostly story, light spills through the log slats in the hut in a way that briefly creates the image of the woman’s face in the smoke.
But the real magic of the “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” isn’t anything supernatural. It’s simply the way the Hints movie invites us to be part of this supportive, smart, sweaty group that seems to operate on the most practical yet optimistic assumption: that with enough heat and fellowship applied, everything painful can subside and everything dirty can. clean it up.
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