Sauna Sister is the text that first greets the audience on screen before the words gently fade into the film’s title, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. Director Anna Hints’ first feature-length documentary depicts the interactions between multiple sauna sisters — the women showcased in the film. These women bask in the warmth and privacy of an Estonian sauna and relay intimate stories to one another about their experiences.
As women, we might have had encounters with our own sauna sisters. They can be a mother, a sister, or a best friend — a female figure in our lives who we can be our genuine selves with, and with whom we can share the most innermost parts of ourselves. I believe that’s the atmosphere Hints recreates in the film. It’s cathartic, it’s private, and it’s comforting.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is essentially an incredibly feminine film, particularly in the way it allows the women to exist as we are. Tendrils of smoke gently curl around the bodies that lay in the sauna. We are privy to glimpses of an ankle here, a stomach there, the nape of a woman’s neck, her hands. But rarely their faces. The intentional focus on the women’s bodies provides them with a sense of empathetic privacy, but Hints carefully naturalises the women’s bodies in ways that are far from sexualised. The women are free to bare all in their most vulnerable state — physically and verbally — as they offload their deepest secrets while fully unclothed.
The women in the sauna partake in the ritualistic act of cleansing themselves
Though the film lulls audiences into a firm “yes, this is a safe space for these women”, it also draws attention to society’s flaws beyond the sauna walls. As the unearthing of such vulnerable aspects of these women primarily happens under the shield of the smoke and the enclosed, dimly lit sauna, it potentially raises the question: are there sufficient spaces carved out in the modern world where women can feel safe enough to share?
Frequently, the notion of womanhood or girlhood is stigmatised through society’s lens. The experiences that make up girlhood might be reduced to frivolous pursuits in the public eye: talking about boys, shopping for clothes, and wearing makeup. Acts not worth serious discussion. How often do we see teenage magazines targeted at girls contributing to such stereotypes by solely discussing these topics, with screaming headlines like, “Crushing hard?! HOW to tell him you want to be MORE THAN FRIENDS!”?
In reality, girlhood is so much more. It is experiences that evoke emotions of fear, happiness, melancholy and warmth. The hashtag “#girlhood” on TikTok has garnered 880 million views. A corresponding rise in popularity for related online topics, like “girl maths” and “hot girl summer” has been observed, perhaps exacerbated by influences like Barbie, opening new room for conversations. The sheer quantity of these trends gaining traction and new terms in relation to girlhood point to a sense of women wanting to relate to a sense of community — to want to evince their experiences with girlhood openly and publicly.
Like the women in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, women online bond over highly specific instances they relate to, particularly in the process of growing up and discovering their identities. Despite the sauna being a far more private realm than online, both domains run parallel to each other. In both spaces, girls are free to speak their minds, sharing both the trivial and the significant which are received without judgement.
As much as women yearn for a sense of community, the online collective can be, at times, as anonymised as the women in the documentary. Wanting empathy possesses an inherent tension — a desire to be understood but also to keep the pain associated with the necessary exposure private. The anonymity of the women in the film juxtaposed against their naked bodies visually represents that tension, while the anonymity of the Internet enables women online to contribute to a shared discussion without actually making it personal. The stakes are reduced for both groups of women and helps them to validate their own experiences by watching others undergo the same without having to delve into the pain themselves, indulging in their instinct to both defend and desire.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood delicately encapsulates this conundrum. As the intensity of the women’s conversations builds, the camera perceptively cuts away to the nature that surrounds the sauna. The focus then turns to peaceful stills of the pastoral, of lakes, forests and trees. There is no denying that the weight of the earlier conversations still hangs heavy amidst the lush greenery. However, the film protects the women from their anguish through these gentle interruptions in their conversations and simultaneously suggests that they are being consoled and lent a sense of peace through their vulnerable sharing.
A brief respite from the walls of the sauna
Much like the vast nature shown, the women’s bodies are portrayed as undiscovered topographies. For centuries, women’s bodily secretions, particularly menstrual blood, have been viewed as dirty or disgusting. The concept of a natural state for women at all has typically been met with disapproval, or so society dictates. Women should have hairless armpits. Sweat is unbecoming. Women should always be primped and perfect. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood subverts these expectations by defiantly depicting the women’s natural bodily fluids in proximity — their sweat and tears, and even in one instance, menstrual blood. By interspersing shots of natural large bodies of water with these natural bodily fluids, the film charges that women are as limitless as nature and pays testament to their inherent power and bodily autonomy.
Throughout the time we spend in the sauna with the women, we watch as they engage in acts of reciprocity. They both literally and metaphorically cleanse each other of their pain, by scrubbing one another’s backs, weeping empathetic tears for each other, and most importantly, becoming the receiver of one another’s troubles. As the women softly narrate their experiences that conjure up a shared experience of modern womanhood, the sauna transforms into a space of rejuvenation. Water is celebrated as a feminine element and a symbol of rebirth.
Perhaps that is precisely what the desire for a communal sense of sisterhood is — seeking a reciprocal form of healing via the knowledge that the grief and shame are not yours alone to carry. The strength of sisterhood therefore becomes a form of rebirth, and the sauna is a place where all that is dirty can be washed clean again.
The sauna as the keeper of the women’s secrets
“We thank you, we thank you!”, are the lyrics of the transcendental song the film fades out with. The women in the documentary repeatedly point to the importance of expressing gratitude towards the sauna keeper for preparing the items to ready the sauna. And in many ways, it is the women who take on the role of the sauna keepers; the guardians of each other’s secrets. It is perhaps apt, then, that the final note of this otherworldly chant is what lingers with the audience — a confirmation of our participation as observers in this sacred ritual, and an affirmation of the sacred sisterhood witnessed.