The term sublime, in the philosophical tradition, has usually been reserved for forms of external nature, a kind of awe in the face of something grand, limitless and unbounded. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, the latest documentary by Anna Hints, offers an alternative: the sublime here is experienced not in nature but rather in corporeality, and in the tactile imperfections of human flesh.
Smoke Sauna is about a ritual specific to the Võro community of Estonia. Throughout the seasons, a group of women meet in a wooden sauna-cabin deep inside a forest. Logs are collected and the fire in the chimney kindled, as the women gather around fully naked, their bodies cradled by smoke, shadow, and light. Ensconced in its womb-like stillness, the women slowly lay bare their deepest and darkest memories: stories – traumatic and deeply unsettling – about pregnancy, abortion, cancer, motherhood, and sexual assault. Occasionally, the proceedings are enlivened by more jovial narratives, as when someone discusses the male propensity for sharing unsolicited dick-pics. The dominant tone, however, is one of grief and lament: of lives constrained and cut short by patriarchal norms.
At the core of Smoke Sauna is a recurring back-and-forth movement between the concrete and the abstract: Hints allows their stories to unfold in real time, often in excruciating detail, and yet we seldom see who is doing the talking. Instead, accompanying them are close-ups of body parts (a perspiring abdomen, a dangling foot) and ritual activities (brooms whacked against bodies, and salt rubbed into flesh). This tendency towards withholding is also present in the film as a whole, which refrains from sharing any personal information about the women. Rather, we are thrust head-long into the narrative, and into the sensory indulgences of the sauna (undulating shafts of light, the hiss of water striking molten coal).
Every once in a while, the film breaks away from its thematic concerns, and, aided by rousing choral chants and music, finds itself on the other side, observing the cabin – and also the women – from afar. Here, we seem to approach something resembling a collective mystical experience (a sisterhood), or perhaps even the point of view of the sauna itself (which in Estonian culture is considered a living entity with its own voice).
As revelations – each one more heartrending than the last – pile up, Hints’ camera increasingly finds itself zooming in on reaction shots, on faces sad, weary, and forlorn, but also full of love and understanding. And it is here perhaps that the real miracle of the film lies: in construing intimacy as the willingness to listen, acknowledge, and lay witness to the other’s story.