Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Sweat Sauna Sisterhood Review: Welcome to a Sacred Space

2023 Sundance Film Festival

4 mins read

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
(Estonia/France/Iceland, 2023)
Dir. Anna Hints
Programme: World Cinema Documentary Competition (World Premiere)


For all its quiet majesty, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a piercing rallying cry for female empowerment. Director Anna Hints deftly captures a highly personal bonding experience between a group of women and brilliantly transforms it into a triumphant celebration of the human spirit. The level of intimacy in this film is astonishing and Hints is able to translate it superbly into a universal message of healing.

An ancient practice in southern Estonia, the smoke sauna is heavily steeped in folklore and tradition. It is a communal place where a group of familiar faces gathers again and again. Chanting, singing, and performing rituals, the women treat the contained area of the sauna as a reverent space. This is where they share their innermost thoughts and secret experiences.

Using close ups, Hints accentuates the confinement of their bodies. The shots in the sauna are stark, an interaction between light and dark, highlighting the ways that the welcoming warmth of the smoke envelops the nakedness. Shot in extreme close ups, the director privileges the intimacy of the space these women inhabit, and their bodies become as one. Outside, in keeping with their changed mood as the women laugh and play with abandon, she keeps shots at more of a loose distance and the editing is more relaxed.

As the women share their thoughts and stories in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, a back-and-forth between built-up emotion and its release occurs. Hints’ mirrors this in the interplay between the inside of the sauna and the exterior’s lush green setting. Her taut stylistic construction creates an intoxicating rhythm, one which ebbs and flows with the feelings expressed.

The women open up more as the film progresses, digging deeper into themselves to share their most private memories. Their discussions extend to a wide range of topics around being female in society. Hints summons a startling beauty in the effortless movement of the conversation. But as the revelations become more difficult to hear, we are reminded that they come from painful places deep within their psyches.

The common denominator here is one of power, of losing it and of finding a way of regaining it. Each woman undergoes her own process of moving through pain and into power. In this way, Hints is able to foreground the inner strength of each woman. It’s ingenious how she does this by placing the spotlight solely on the female body.

In Smoked Sauna Sisterhood, the setting transforms into a sacred space where trauma is shed. Hints takes the viewer on a journey through the collective female psyche to a place beyond pain and powerlessness. As the film evolves, the viewer becomes wrapped up in the shared intimacy, and along with the subjects, eventually discovers a sanctuary where souls are renewed, and hope is restored. It is an unforgettable experience.


Smoke Sauna Sisterhood premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Update (15/1/2024): Smoke Sauna Sisterhood opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Jan. 26 and screens at ReFrame Film Festival on Jan. 27.

Barbara is co-host/co-producer of Frameline who joined during its CKLN days. As a freelance writer and film critic for the past 30 years, she has contributed to numerous dailies and magazines including The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Film Encyclopedia, Box Office Magazine as well as to several books. A veteran of the Canadian film industry, Barbara has worked in many key areas including distribution and programming, and has also served on various festival juries

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