PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 22: (L-R) Hlin Johannesdottir, Kadi Kivilo, Edvard Egilsson, Anna Hints, Marianne Ostrat, and Hendrik Mägar attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” Premiere at Prospector Square Theatre on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images).
By Katie Small
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to partake in a women-only sauna retreat in a remote forest in Estonia, look no further.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood takes viewers on an intimate and visceral journey into a private space of healing and reflection. Premiering Sunday, January 22 at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, the documentary immerses us in a cozy wooden cabin in the woods, where warm sunlight filters through a single window and mingles enchantingly with the hot steam within. The cleansing power of water encourages a catharsis of body and mind as a small group of women share their hopes and fears for the past, present, and future.
The film’s rich cinematography reveals a poetic, fairy tale–like setting that traverses the seasons; a mossy cabin surrounded by Estonia’s colorful fall woods; fog sweeping over a lake at dawn; late afternoon reflections of a tree-lined river; supple, naked bodies lounging among wildflowers in spring meadows. With intimate access, the unflinchingly honest portrayal makes it feel as though you are right there with the women — chanting and dancing in the snow, plunging into an icy hole cut into a frozen lake, peeing next to a river.
Close-ups of moist skin and ruddy cheeks ground disembodied voices that discuss the myriad experiences of womanhood. The heavier topics include generational trauma, the patriarchy, motherhood, abortion, domestic violence, body image, menstruation, shame, sexual abuse, and surviving breast cancer. But the women’s sense of humor and hope are ever-present as well, as they laugh and reminisce about love, beauty, and joy.
In a post-premiere Q&A, writer-director Anna Hints explained that smoke sauna sessions are a sacred, ceremonial act in southern Estonian culture. “We greet [the] smoke sauna as a living being. Every Saturday you go there with your family, but there are also very special spirit saunas, where you go to connect with your ancestors,” she says. “And then when there are big life occasions, you go and cleanse, or when something has happened to you. It is a safe, sacred space where you can really be naked in all ways.”
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a journey for the senses, one that includes the auditory hiss of steam as water hits hot coals, deep breathing, leaves slapping skin, hushed voices telling stories they’ve never told, and the women’s spellbinding chants as they pray, “Water, take the pain away.”