It doesn't take long to see why Anna Hints' stunning, evocative documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood won Best Director in the Documentary competition at this year's Sundance. This refreshing film is as experimental as it is coated in realism, with its abstract imagery somehow working in perfect tandem with its engaging stories of trauma, abuse, and healing. Its portrayal of the female body, shown with respect and absolutely no male gaze present, makes Smoke Sauna Sisterhood a perfect companion piece to Claire Simon's Our Body, which was also released this year. Both documentaries differ in many ways, but both retain that vital, unerring stance in allowing women space to tell their own stories.
As the title suggests, the setting of Hints' documentary is a smoke sauna, situated within the visually resplendent forests of the Vana-Võromaa region in South Estonia. It's a tradition entrenched in history for Estonians, and is listed in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This status gives some indication of its importance, but even that can't prepare you for how vital this place and act is for many Estonian women. The title's third word completes the puzzle: above all else, this is a documentary about sisterhood, and how beneficial acts of community and care can be.
Drawing on her own Võro heritage, Hints gives us snippets of the smoke sauna tradition's history, presenting it via artistic, painterly depictions that come off as mythical, but for the most part, Hints and her camera are patient, respectful observers, similar again to Simon's Our Body. In these various moments, we are privy to complex emotions, bright laughter, and frank discussions; the conversations we are lucky enough to witness are always compelling, with the camera, which floats like the wisps of sauna smoke, allowing these discussions to gracefully flow across a milieu of tones. Ants Tammik's stunning cinematography also allows the camera to connect to these women, their stories, and their senses.
The stories we hear have enough impetus on their own, but the artistic side of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood elevates our experience with them further. Naturally lit with beauty and sincerity, hues of light capture shaded bodies, evocatively drawing out these women's emotions even further. Naked bodies, like canvasses of memories and life, are shown with respect—often they are captured instead of faces—as conversations touch on serious topics such as sexual assault and terminal illness. Anger, despondency, resignation, happiness float around within the sauna's walls and bind these women together. By sharing these experiences, these people heal; the sauna is not just a physically beneficial place, but a tonic for the soul too.
Although occasionally loose in form, which contributes to a sometimes wavering forcefulness, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is completely and utterly transfixing from its first shot to its last. This is staggeringly good documentary filmmaking, and Hints artfully sketches something truly unique and absorbing, containing evocative sound design by Tanel Kadalipp and graceful editing by Tushar Prakash. The result of all these stunning elements is one of deep impact, and urgent questioning: as one woman asks, how do we as a world stop male brutality and challenge the established patriarchy?
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood releases in UK cinemas on 13th October