The Baltics take their saunas very seriously, often emerging from sweltering huts to jump straight into the ice. It’s a bracing spectacle captured by Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, the Estonian entry for the best international feature film at the 96th Academy Awards.
Estonia’s traditional smoke sauna, listed in Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage alongside such cultural ethereals as Chinese calligraphy and Argentinian tango, is a space where women gather to cleanse their bodies and souls. The intimacy of that experience is expertly captured by film-makers Anna Hints and cinematographer Ants Tammik.
Shot over five years, the film is another intangible marvel, punctuated by rituals: the cleansing of a baby, the gathering of water from a stream, witchy chanting and beating out impurities with leafy branches.
The women are naked but abstract framing and Tushar Prakash’s editing preserves anonymity in a collage of squished breasts, flesh folds and beads of sweat.
The darkness of the smokehouse is often counterpointed with peals of laughter as women discuss “dick pics”, abortion, chemotherapy, comical sexual role-play and marriages that were, at best, endured by previous generations of women. Estonian peculiarities – undemonstrative parenting, an aversion to affection – are shrugged off and sweated out.
A safe and very feminine space, the sauna allows for startling confessional moments. One woman relays a late realisation about her sexuality and the brutal rebuff of the woman she fell in love with, who dismissed her with the words: “You are the filthiest person I ever met.” Another woman recounts the time when her mother, a locally beloved figure, chased her with a scythe.
Be warned: the final 20 minutes contain a harrowing first-person account of a teenager getting raped at knifepoint only to be raped again by one of her supposed rescuers.
The communal repetition of certain phrases, including “sweat out all the pain,” adds to the wonderful sense of catharsis.