Vague Visages’ Smoke Sauna Sisterhood review contains minor spoilers for Anna Hints’ 2023 documentary. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
In January, Anna Hints brought Smoke Sauna Sisterhood to the 2023 Sundance Film Festival for the movie’s world premiere. It was the first time Sundance programmed a documentary feature made by a filmmaker from Estonia. By the end of the event, Hints received a well-deserved directing award in the festival’s World Cinema Documentary category. Viewers are invited inside the dark and intimate confines of the title location, a quiet and humble cabin tucked between water and trees in the south of the country. From there, the director communicates an astonishing outpouring of vulnerable self-disclosure as the subjects chant and laugh and cry and cleanse, sharing with each other — and the audience — immediately recognizable challenges, sorrows and triumphs.
Hints does elect to show faces from time to time, but perfects a technique in which the women speak simultaneously as individuals and as a unified voice. The various rituals associated with the sauna, including the use of leaves and plants as floggers to stimulate circulation, the rubbing of salt on the skin and the multiple hot/cold cycles of quick dips in the water — including through holes cut in the ice during wintertime — familiarize the audience with a practice that the credits reveal is recognized on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. No history, context or backstory gets in the way of the director’s position as a nearly invisible observer; she goes right to the sauna. By the end of the film, one will likely feel honored to spend time in this company.
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Despite the intensity of several stories, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is unhurried. The movie fully commits to the experience of the sauna, and the filmmakers do a superb job conveying a strong sense of being in that space. Hints began work on the project eight years ago, and the film’s scenes unfold over the course of roughly nine months of time. There is certainly a careful consideration of rhythm and pace and of the faster and slower passages that the director arranges with thoughtfulness and precision.
As the name of the movie indicates, Hints focuses on the camaraderie of women, but all can appreciate the fellowship. Like so many of the best movies, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood captures the universal in the specific. There are stories about relationships that come apart and come together. One can recognize the complexities of parent-child bonds. Hints includes absolutely harrowing accounts of sexual assault and rape. She often aligns the viewer with the film’s subjects by holding on the faces of those in reaction shots as opposed to close-ups of the storytellers. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a film that recognizes the importance of listening.
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At the post-premiere Q & A for Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, Hints and director of photography Ants Tammik spoke briefly about the physical challenges of capturing the desired imagery; a gorgeously-lit, often abstract cascade of fast-falloff chiaroscuro that sees the entire range of body shapes and types with the eyes of a master painter. Tammik, who lost at least one expensive lens to the harsh conditions, conveys the almost tactile representation of heat as well as any cinematographer since Ernest Dickerson on Do the Right Thing (1989). During the same discussion, Hints admitted to blacking out from the high temperature in the sauna. The sacrifices were worth it.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.
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