Deep in an Estonian forest, far from the pressures and cares of the outside world, there is a log cabin with a sauna inside. And within that sauna, there are women telling their stories. They speak of growing up with the belief they’re ugly, emotionally distant parents, coming to terms with breast cancer diagnoses. They talk of the horror of rape, and of going through a still birth. Within the safe, smoky confines of the sauna, nothing, no matter how personal or traumatic, is off limits.
Almost all the women in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood are not identified by their faces, which is understandable considering the intensely intimate nature of the experiences they are discussing. Instead, we see them as a collection of breasts, arms, buttocks, legs, hands and feet. Director Anna Hints shoots with warmth and candour, producing images that aren’t sexualised, but instead symbolic of what it is to be a woman going through the world in a body, and the depressingly unusual comfort of being in a place where that body isn’t judged, politicised, or ogled – just allowed to be. You might think it’d be a little oxymoronic to provide the women anonymity by representing them as their most private parts, and yet under the compassionate female gaze of Hints, it works, underlining their communion. Their sisterhood.
So it is a little strange that there is in fact one face we see almost all the time, that of ‘Sauna Keeper’ Kadi Kivilo. Hints’ decision here is hard to parse – presumably she was the only one who felt comfortable going on camera (we do see the face of another woman, who tells of coming out to her family, but she disappears as soon as she’s told her story), and yet that continual focus on her face when everyone else is just body parts makes it seem like she is the main character in a film that shouldn’t have one. It undercuts the documentary’s supposed universalism.
Also, that the film leans so strongly into trauma does get uncomfortably close to suggesting that being a woman is inherently the same as being a victim. There are a few laughs here, especially in the early discussions around the group’s thoughts about ‘dick pics’, but they are far outnumbered by descriptions of bleak, awful events. Sometimes it feels as though the movie is making its way through a ‘bad things that happen to women’ bingo card, and then using that card to stand in for the entire experience of being a woman. And that, in turn, does a disservice to the specific, heart-rending tales that are shared here.
Despite those misgivings, it’s very clear how much Hints and everyone involved cared about Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, both the film and the women whose stories are at the centre of it. The care with which it is made, the sensitivity with which it was shot, are both palpable. However much the thematic construction of the documentary can come off as frustratingly muddled, the empathy and tenderness at its core is undeniable.