Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

The smoke sauna tradition of Vőromaa, in southern Estonia, is nearly a thousand years old.  On UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage of the world, smoke sauna practices include the building and maintenance of saunas, smoking meat, making bath whisks, and bathing and cleaning rituals.

Written and directed by Estonian filmmaker Anna Hints, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is an intimate glimpse into the practical and spiritual traditions of the smoke sauna.  It is also a moving portrait of a group of women for whom the darkness of the sauna provides physical and emotional cleansing, community, and healing. 

The documentary provides very little context or background on the smoke sauna practice.  Instead, we are brought into the sauna experience itself.  The camerawork is intimate, detailed, and lush: close shots of women’s bodies, sparkling with sweat.  We see smoke and steam twisting upward in thin shafts of cold, winter light.  The intimacy of the camera brings us into this experience.  The physical proximity and emotional vulnerability of the women, as well as the sensual camera work, helping the audience to feel like they are part of the group and their ritual, rather than an external onlooker.  It is as though we are sitting in the darkness of the sauna alongside the women.  Thighs pressed to their thighs, listening as they share laughter, jokes, songs, stories, and memories. 

The sauna is a space where the women come to clean themselves, and we see them wash the dirt from their bodies.  But the space of the sauna, its intimacy and darkness, allow the women to speak of things that are considered taboo in their daily lives.  Topics such as abortion, sexual assault, menstruation, childbirth, and even homosexuality and queer desire are discussed freely.  As such, the sauna becomes a space for emotional healing, as well as physical cleansing.  By speaking about their experiences, the women find acceptance, comradery, support, and love. 

The women’s stories are given space and respect.  Hints’ film doesn’t impose any particular lens or judgment on their experiences, instead she lets each speak for herself.  Though it is easy to identify a common shared experience of patriarchal oppression, the focus is on each woman’s process of sharing, unburdening, and cleansing.  Wisely, Hints forgoes an overt political message in favor of showcasing deeply personal memories and secrets.  The paths through these painful recollections, whispered in the smoke and the darkness, lead to individual unburdening and strength. 

Not only does Smoke Sauna Sisterhood offer an intimate glimpse inside an important cultural tradition, but it is also a deeply moving demonstration of how human connection and community can help us move beyond shame and trauma.


Do You Tweet? Follow These Tweeple:

Shannon Page: 

Be the first to comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.