MOVIE OF THE WEEK November 24, 2023: SMOKE SAUNA SISTERHOOD

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Women of all shapes and sizes come together in a traditional Estonian sauna to sweat out their pain and fear in filmmaker Anna Hints‘ meditative documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. As the steam swirls around them, the women tell their stories, sharing joys and sorrows, trauma and triumph. Underlying everything is the reality of what it means to be a woman — and how essential it is for women to support one another.

The women in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood aren’t really identified by name; in fact, their faces are shown far less often than the rest of their bodies are. Hints’ camera dreamily, lovingly showcases bare breasts, stomachs, thighs, bottoms, arms, and legs; sometimes it’s difficult to tell where one woman’s body stops and another one begins. And that’s very much part of the film’s point. Because the experiences the sauna-goers describe are those faced by all women, everywhere: The pain of assault, loss, and illness; the emotional baggage of family relationships; the thrill of finding genuine love.

In between sessions filmed inside the sauna, Hints shares scenes of how the sauna is prepared and how the women move between the heat of its protective interior and the cold, refreshing world outside. There’s music, singing, and eating; babies are nurtured, and smiles are shared. But it’s inside the special, sacred space of the sauna that the women are most themselves. They accept one another without reservation or judgment, forming a sisterhood in the truest sense of the word.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is filmmaking at its most intimate, observing its subjects when they’re simultaneously extremely vulnerable and fiercely protected. As they cry, laugh, and, yes, sweat together, Hints’ memorable movie celebrates these women’s connections, commonalities, and unconditional support of one another.– Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Pam Grady: The Estonian entry for Best International Feature 2024 Oscar and the winner of international documentary directing prize at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, this evocative slice of nonfiction filmmaking offers an unusually intimate glimpse into a group of women’s lives. A remote cabin in the middle of the woods serves as a meeting place and respite from their daily routines for these friends. In particular, a sauna within the cabin allows the women to luxuriate in the steam, each other’s ministrations to their bodies, and, in particular, as a place to share confidences. No topic is taboo as they discuss the truths of their lives in sometimes harrowing detail. The experiences related are individual but women the world over will see bits and pieces of their own journeys through life reflected in the stories. The sauna takes on the aura of a confessional and is revealed to be just as sacred in this almost tactile observation of friendship and womanhood.

Nell Minow: The small miracle of the Estonian film “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is that it does more than show us a blissfully safe space; it brings us inside.

Sherin Nicole The places where women gather to tell our stories are sacred. Places where the old ways intermingle with modern life. Those are the cultural touchstones, these places where stories are exchanged, wounds are unveiled, and laughter becomes a balm. This is where Smoke Sauna Sisterhood rises, as light as steam, as tangible as truth. The film is shot up close and from unexpected angles, allowing nudity to be symbolic of vulnerability but never weakness. The camera most often focuses on the listeners rather than the speaker, a technique that attunes our attention and draws us into a tradition (the smoke saunas of Estonian) that is specific and yet universal to women of many cultures. We recognize ourselves in the film and that reflection is moving.

Nikki Fowler: Anna Hints’ Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is an intimate look at women’s stories through the private lives of women in their most quiet moments, sharing experiences spanning decades balancing mental health, love, abuse, family, self identity and self love. Through captivating cinematography of the human body exposed and images layered with the gentle voices of the women’s voice over conversations, you will possibly peel back your own wounds and the wounds of your own ‘sisters,’ if any, and find solace in the way we communicate as women about the tragedies and heartbreak that we’ve learned to navigate and survive. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a gentle, quiet yet powerful film where words lead and the contour of women cleansing, embracing and standing in their own truth and light dance on camera merging and dissolving like moths to a flame.

Leslie Combemale Though the film has several very triggering scenes relating to spousal abuse, sexual assault, and fetal death, overall Smoke Sauna Sisterhood feels like a celebration of acceptance and female fellowship, and as such for many would feel like a cathartic experience. The documentary amplifies the smoke sauna tradition of the Võro community of Estonia, which historically is a family custom, but within the context of this film is used as part of a transformational ritual. The camera work, too, celebrates the female form, in all its diverse beauty. It is experiential cinema, and lends a meditative quality that draws the viewer in.

Jennifer Merin Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is an intimate feminist documentary from Estonian filmmaker Anna Hints. We are invited to observe a group of women who’ve come together to cleanse their bodies, minds and spirits by celebrating the ritual of a traditional Estonian sauna. The sauna’s dimly lit interior is actually considered to be sacred. It is a place where women come to give birth, to prepare the dead for burial and to relieve themselves from stressful situations in their lives. Read full review.

Loren King I was immediately enveloped and enthralled by the warmth of the remote cabin in the documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood where I could practically feel the steam and smell the curing pork. This immersive gem from Estonia centers on a group of women, all ages, sizes and backgrounds, who regularly gather in the cabin to sit and steam, talk, and venture into the chilly secluded forest to bathe in a river. The lush visuals of female bodies dappled with sweat are captivating but not more so than the conversations inside the steam bath. Monologues about cruel mothers and abusive men; about illness, abortions, menstruation and rape are conversations as intimate and searing as any of the exchanges in last year’s Women Talking. This film is a sumptuous visual and aural poem that invites the viewer inside a sacred, surprising, and seductive space.

Sandie Angulo Chen: The Estonian documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is reminiscent of the powerful narrative feature Women Talking in the sense that it captures the power of a group of women talking about their feelings, hopes, and disappointments. The Estonian women in this unforgettable film are naked while observing the rituals of the titular smoke sauna. They cleanse themselves literally and figuratively, shedding what weighs on their minds, hearts, and souls. From joking about what their mothers called (or didn’t call) their genitals and menstruation to confessing the horrors of sexual assault and giving birth to a stillborn baby, the women discuss intimate, personal truths. Director Anna Hints and cinematographer Ants Tammik have, along with their documentary’s subjects, created a beautiful tribute to a cultural phenomenon that is part confession, part communion, and all about healing.

Nikki Fowler: Anna Hints’ Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is an intimate look at women’s stories through the private lives of women in their most quite moments, sharing experiences spanning decades balancing mental health, love, abuse, family, self identity and self love. Through captivating cinematography of the human body exposed and images layered with the gentle voices of the women’s voice over conversations, you will possibly peel back your own wounds and the wounds of your own ‘sisters,’ if any, and find solace in the way we communicate as women about the tragedies and heartbreak that we’ve learned to navigate and survive. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a gentle, quiet yet powerful film where words lead and the contour of women cleansing, embracing and standing in their own truth and light dance on camera merging and dissolving like moths to a flame.

Liz Whittemore Director Anna Hints takes an Estonian tradition and delivers a profoundly deep and visceral documentary in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. Women enter a steam-filled room for a physical and spiritual cleansing. Topics like cancer, women’s rights, body shaming, unresolved trauma, sex, and sexuality swirl freely. It is a safe space I envy. Mesmerizing closeups of body parts beading with sweat captured with static and handheld camerawork beautifully complement the conversations and place the audience inside the room. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood brings a contagious joy. There is a raw elegance I think audiences, specifically female viewers, will welcome. This film is a celebration of our complexities, highlighting the tender care we take with one another. It is revelatory to rediscover the interconnectedness of women and our shared experiences, good and bad. It is an astonishingly rewarding emotional catharsis.

Cate Marquis Estonian filmmaker Anna Hints’ intriguing documentary gives us a glimpse into the ancient South Estonian tradition of the women’s smoke sauna, a kind of blending of a smokehouse to preserve meats and a sauna of preserve the bonds between women, as well as ancient folkways and the women’s own sanity. The purpose of the smoke sauna is the relax the body and the mind. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood shows us this world by immersing us in it. Read full review.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Directors: Anna Hints

Release Date: November 24, 2023

Running Time: 89 minutes

Language: Estonian with English subtitles

Screenwriters: Anna Hints (documentary)

Distribution Company: Greenwich Entertainment

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).