Lyrical and life-affirming tales of hurt and healing in a hotbox
In a log sauna nestled in pretty lakeside woods, a setting straight out of the top of a box of chocolates, a group of women gather through the seasons to sweat their secrets and heal themselves through the heat, talk and arcane sauna-based rituals. It’s a practice so specific to Estonia’s Voro community that it joins Cuba’s rum makers, Turkey’s coffee culture and others on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage, a fact revealed at the end of Anna Hint’s charming debut feature “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood”. And that’s absolutely fine, given that the smoky, steamy little miracle of this movie is how it creates something so intangible, so lyrical, out of the absolutely elemental: fire, wood , water and lots of naked female flesh.
Part of the film’s transcendent appeal is the result of specific formal choices made by Hints, the deserving winner of the Directing Award in the World Cinema Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival. The soundscape is precise and evocative: shivering samples of Edvard Egilsson’s otherworldly choral score mingle with the quiet, almost eerie lightness of the woodland setting, water splashes and hisses over the coals and whispered conversations made conspiratorial by the strange and secret reverberation in this small space.
Ants Tammik’s camera work draws similar inspiration, notably in the framing of women’s bodies which are displayed without prudery but also without modesty, and usually only partially – backs, breasts, bellies, chins resting on their knees. . Often we don’t see the face of the woman speaking, and instead look at her words received by someone else. But sometimes, like a late monologue, we’re looking at the speaker, and his head and shoulders are lit up so the effect is almost surreal. Hovering against the enveloping darkness, she could float in space.
But the primary vehicle for this sense of the film as something intangible greater than the sum of its parts is the sense of community it establishes, for which the women themselves are responsible. We don’t necessarily get to know them as individuals, even though their shared stories are intimately personal and sometimes heartbreaking. Instead, Hints lets their sweet chatter tell a kind of choral experience of modern womanhood.
Some of them are absurd: they laugh at pictures of cocks and awkward sexual encounters. Some of them are universal, as they come up over and over again on the topic of motherhood and all the ways our mothers love us, hurt us, and screw us up. And some of them move desperately. A woman cries while recounting her teenage rape; another describes, in painful and extraordinary detail, the process of having to give birth to a baby who was already dead. She was glad she did it that way, rather than having a C-section, she muses, because the anguish of labor meant that “some of the pain [of grief] was already burned.
Too much of this intense, naked truth could get overwhelming, but “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood,” despite all the trauma and stress it touches, remains light on its feet, interspersing the more talkative sections with quiet interludes where we watch the hut from afar, or watch with forensic interest as the fire is carefully lit and blown in the morning, or follow the women in winter, plunging, shivering and laughing, into a hole dug in the ice of deep surface of the lake to cool off. The sauna also serves as a smokehouse and is used to cure meat. On days when no one visits, instead of human flesh, large, heavy pieces of fatty pork tied up with twine hang from the rafters.
But most of the time we’re inside the little wooden room with the women, almost as if we’re sitting right next to them, dipping our hands in the cup of hot water that’s going around, and smelling the heated and fragrant air suck all the toxins from our bodies. There is also a mystical aspect to this tradition, with chants and incantations, while sometimes one of the women will perform some sort of ritual on another, driving away evil spirits with a bushel of leaves or a handful of coarse salt. . During one particularly ghostly story, light spills through the wooden slats of the cabin in such a way that it briefly creates the image of a woman’s face in the smoke.
But the real magic of “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is nothing supernatural. It’s simply the way Hints’ film invites us to be part of this witty, sweaty supportive collective that seems to work on the most practical yet optimistic assumptions: that with the app with enough warmth and companionship, all that is painful can be soothed and all that is dirty can be made clean.
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