AFIFest: Smoke Sauna Sisterhood – True communion

Anna Hints’s Smoke Sauna Sisterhood provides a glimpse into the lives of a group of Estonian women. Their lives are shared with humor, sorrow, and compassion. The documentary won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award and is Estonia’s entry for Best International Feature consideration.

The smoke sauna is included in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. In this area Estonia, women gather in a building with no chimney with a wood fire that fills the room with smoke. Meat hangs from the rafters. The women come and bathe one another, and not only cleanse their bodies, but their spirits as well.

The film covers a number of visits to the sauna. We see it in the cold of winter when someone has cut a hole in the ice on the nearby pond so they can climb down into the freezing water. We also see them in summer when they can lay naked in the grass and sing. Along the way, we hear the women talk about things that are trivial and things that are important.

Among the topics are beauty and body image, things their parents taught them, breast cancer, abortions, men who send dick pics in Tinder, and particularly moving accounts of a still birth and a rape. At times, they sing together. At times, they mourn together.

In some ways, this is a real-life version of last year’s Oscar® winning film Women Talking. Both focus on women’s lives and struggles. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is not just about seeing into women’s lives, but about the kind of healing that can come from sharing in such a community.

At the screening I attended at AFIFest, director Anna Hints told of her first experience in the smoke sauna when she was young. It was just after her grandfather’s death and she told of the secrets that were shared and the healing that that provided.  This is the kind of experience that, while in no way religious, carries with it a sense of the Holy. As we watch and listen to these women bare their lives just as they have bared their bodies, we know that we are witness to true communion.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is due in US theaters in early 2024.

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