Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

In this tough but tender documentary, women find community as they cleanse a lifetime of shared pain

Film Review by Lucy Fitzgerald | 09 Oct 2023
  • Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
Film title: Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
Director: Anna Hints
Release date: 13 Oct
Certificate: 15

“Smoke Sauna is a sacred place… Where you wash yourself clean. You can wash off all your dirt.” As a documentary film and love letter to womanhood, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a celebration of survival. Through a series of conversations among Estonian women gathered at a cabin in the woods for a steam bath, the film presents an intimate portrait of a sanctuary in which no woman needs to perform in any capacity – a refuge from society.

In one primal, joyful scene, the women lie flat on grass and sing in unison, using their naked bodies as percussion. Unposed as they expel their aches, their full forms and relaxed bellies, breasts, and backs are beautifully framed. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is at its best when it sits in such realism. It briefly falters with a heavy-handed stylistic choice during connecting scenes, in which miraged faces and silhouettes of older women (an insert for their domineering, projecting mothers) appear superimposed on the elements (snow flurries, imposing forests, and cloudy mists over morning lakes that otherwise evoke the cinematography of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth).

Smoke Sauna is shown to be a place where women come to comfort and confront, to expunge and embrace, to reclaim themselves, one bead of sweat at a time. They find community as they let their learned shame from formative experiences (from periods to heteronormativity) evaporate and purge violent memories. They hold each other, showing care and curiosity in the face of the unforgiving sexist culture beyond this smoky haven. 

Released 13 Oct by Conic; certificate 15