Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood: Estonian Women Bonding Together

 By José Alberto Hermosillo 

“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is a stunning and powerful documentary, insightful and poetic, reflecting on women and other transcendental topics affecting their womanhood. 

Deep in the woods, where the rivers and clear waters converge, naked women talk about a wide variety of topics inside the smoky sauna. The foggy filters accentuated the light and distorted the images. Many women are photographed through shadows. Others are faceless or in close-ups to create a deeper connection with the audience. Their nudity makes us feel their vulnerability, but their voices and body language generate the image of strong women and stoicism.
The women continued discussing women’s issues – including motherhood, life, and death. Their period, losing their virginity, wearing loose pants, or giving birth to a girl, and feeling guilty for that simple fact of having a baby girl, not a boy, when, in reality, it should be considered a blessing.

Pregnancy and childbirth are other essential subjects narrated vividly and painfully.
Their intimate conversations continue involving involuntary abortion and the guilty feelings that follow those dramatic experiences. They even voice out their mother’s abortion freely, making it hard for the viewer to be judgmental.

Others talk about their relationship with their grandmothers, who participated in the war. They recalled how mentally challenging their lives have become since then and how they and their grandchildren inherited that traumatic experience.
When the bath is filled with herbs, things turn mystical, mainly because those herbs are used to clean the body and soul and to help chase the evil spirits away.

“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is an honest depiction of women in their most vulnerable moments, with all the variants in between, expressing how they deal with their relationships with other women, how they cope with men, and how they prevail stoically through generations.

The story unfolds linearly, tribally, and cathartically – as the women emerge liberated from the sauna to submerge into the waters of the quiet river – making us think about their transition from a heavenly moment of intimacy with other women to nature.
“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is not religious or whimsical, and the women’s stories do not pursue a political agenda and do not wave the feminist flag that men disapprove of. On the contrary, it can be used as a tool for men to learn about women’s experiences through life and how women feel internally.

The documentary is Estonia’s Official Entry for Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards. It won the Director’s Award at the World Cinema Documentary competition at Sundance 2023, Best Documentary at the Golden Gate Awards, and Best Film at the Sophia Documental Fest in Bulgaria. 

Smoke saunas became an essential Vana-Vōromaa (Southeast Estonia) tradition, and it is now part of UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

I was skeptical about watching a project that includes in the title the word sisterhood, a total turn-off for men, and being prejudiced without knowing the importance of learning how women think and act when they are among other women. I ate my humble pie and recognized the excellence in filmmaking and how well-made it is because, believe me, “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” by first-time director Anna Hints is the best documentary of the year.

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