Smoke Sauna Sisterhood review — Strong together in the heat

Written and Directed by Anna Hints | ▲▲▲▲△ |  89 min | VOD and digital

What an incredibly evocative documentary. The filmmaker shot it over multiple seasons in an Estonian sauna — apparently there’s a longstanding cultural tradition of women gathering to sweat. This doesn’t seem entirely unusual — in our own northern clime, what with spas, saunas, and sweat lodges — but it’s fascinating to get a window into the relationships between the women who attend this particular cabin in the woods.

Aside from one participant, we never see the women’s faces. Instead, we get deep shadows, steam, and single-source lighting on middle-aged breasts and backs, thighs and hips. The women sing folk songs and laugh, sharing personal stories from their lives, their relationships with their families, men, and women. Some of this is hilarious, some of it is devastating, but all of it is candid and intimate. We also hear the voice of an elder, speaking about her experience in this culture as a young person. On occasion our leads will leave the cabin to take a dip in a frozen lake, collect leafy branches for rituals inside the sauna. They do this all year long.

What’s entirely heartening about the film is how relatable it is, that the experiences of these women from a tiny Baltic state half a world away are so familiar. At times that’s a sad truth, but beyond that it also feels wonderfully pagan and witchy, stories from a place where maybe there’s just a little less repression and shame around bodies and maybe just a little more rooted in healthy traditions. This moving film offers a number of remarkable possibilities worth considering.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.