We’re familiar with the sauna as a communal experience, but for the women of a particular village in Southeast Estonia, it’s a deeply spiritual one. In a picturesque little log cabin, the Vana-Võromaa women congregate amidst the cleansing steam, pouring their souls into the either in a ritual of mutual support and catharsis. Anna Hints‘ fascinating and almost supernaturally intimate documentary captures the joys and traumas of its subjects in pointillist detail. But though hyper-specific in its location, the recollections expelled into the steam are heartbreakingly universal.

As physically naked as they are emotionally, the women use the sauna like a secular confessional of equals. Their deepest traumas and insecurities are safely given voice with no risk of reproachment or reprisal. The subjects are familiar, often distressingly so: bodily insecurities, sexuality, and family, to death, rape, and stillbirth. There is much talk of shame and humiliation, which might seem strange given their nakedness, but more than their clothes are shed at the entrance. It’s a ritualistic act as much as a therapeutic one, with the sauna referred to more than once as a sacred space, and there is something about Hints documentary that really tries to capture a sense of transcendence.

As a document of female experience Smoke Sauna Sisterhood would be compelling enough, but Hints’ and cinematographer Ants Tammik’s visual sense is extraordinary. Their compositional choices and the stunning use of light and shadow capture a heightened, surreal quality that somehow dials into the atmosphere of ceremony. The camera’s focus on the body becomes almost abstract, as likely to linger on sweat dripping from toes, on breasts, backs, and arms. When they do alight on faces it’s rarely on the person speaking, and they glisten in sharp relief against the darkness of the sauna, the extreme contrast giving them the air of a Caravaggio painting. This fragmentation of the body not only avoids any hints of prurience, but also highlights the universality of the tales being shared, as personal and painful as they are to that person.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is at times harrowing given the subjects discussed but the sense of understanding, of shared wisdom, love, and community springs forth like the plentiful beads of sweat induced by the steam. You can also feel the trust the women have in Hints, and the documentarian has responded with the deepest empathy. The viewer feels like they’ve been granted a privileged glimpse into the inner sanctum of a cloistered order. If there is a directorial voice here, it’s one that is as fascinated by the preparatory stages of the ritual – the breaking of ice to create a plunge pool, the lighting of the fire, blowing on the coals – as by the time the women spend in the sauna itself. It’s really the only real indication that the film is made by an outsider.

As beautiful and cathartic as it is, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is likely to have limited appeal through its unusual presentation. There’s occasionally a soporific quality caused by the hiss of water on coals and the flickering of light on skin that can make it seem like an ambient experience in places, a sensation that jars against some of the tales being told; they deserve the respect afforded by undivided attention. While it’s not a film to demand repeated viewing, it’s a unique work of art that finds new and interesting ways of presenting one of the oldest forms of communication we have, the telling of our stories.

In selected cinemas Fri 13 Oct 2023