The camera’s all-encompassing eye, famously termed the “kino-eye” by Russian filmmaker and theorist Dziga Vertov, has always been capable of revealing the mysterious and hidden. Fiction and non-fiction filmmakers have used this (super)power to highlight not only the minutiae of human life, but also to explore its unassuming connections or disconnections with animal, natural, and industrial life. But — thanks in no small part to the technological and digital explosion — the God’s-eye-view nature of the kino-eye naturally leads to questions of — thanks in no small part to the icy cold cinema of Michael Haneke — surveillance. Is there a point when the camera’s revelations become more of an intrusive infiltration? Is it even possible now to explore and not expose?
Director Anna Hints’ debut feature, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, which won Sundance’s Documentary Directing Award, is most remarkable for its ability to do just that. It explores the smoke sauna tradition of Vana-Võromaa in Southeastern Estonia, an idyllic, coven-like retreat wherein different groups of Võro women gather to discuss their incredibly personal pains and shames. Their intention — never made explicitly clear — is to cleanse these away by bathing in mother nature and sisterly nurture. In its very essence, this is a form of close-knit communal therapy that the camera’s presence could easily disrupt.
Hints and cinematographer Ants Tammik consistently avoid this by placing the camera extremely wide or intimately close to its subjects. The former’s function is immediately clear: the distance both establishes the film’s secluded setting (a cabin in the woods) and preserves its participants’ identities. (Hints never reveals any women’s names until the end credits). But it’s the extreme close-up approach — a less experimentally extreme version of Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab’s similar aesthetic approach in Leviathan (2012) and De Humani Corporis Fabrica (2022) — that Hints most consistently applies to genuinely moving effect. For one, the closeness, naturally, puts us right in the mi(d)st of things: we feel we’re there with these women, listening to them, laughing and crying with them. But their vulnerabilities, physical and emotional, never feel exposed, as Hints also uses the camera’s extreme proximity — focusing on hands, feet, and legs more so than faces — to protect these women’s identities.
Necessitated or otherwise, this directorial choice is central to the film’s hypnotic, therapeutic allure. It works, most beautifully, in tandem with the sauna house’s intimate setting. A single shaft of bright light perpetually penetrates the mostly pitch-black sauna, but the women, often sitting or lying down on elevated wooden benches, their hands and legs tightly clasped together, remain shadowy; their voices — sometimes cautious, at other times confident — reveal their individual struggles with accepting their sexual identity or plus-sized body and consistent battle against diseases, gendered violence, and conservatism. But the camera, like the smoke sauna setting, allows them to do all this in the dark. (In some particular instances, the camera even actively protects them, sensually caressing their beautiful, fleshy bodies as they laughingly recall instances of cruel fat-shaming). Endless pools of smoke — like pitch-black darkness, a horror movie signifier — also become a haven of calm and safety. The camera watches, in close-up, as smoke fills the screen, and the women continue talking. Gradually, the image’s obscurity coheres with the audio’s clarity to make these stories feel dispersed and hazy but never impersonal. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, then, stands as a rare, polished gem: a feminist film that reveals the infinite faces of womanhood without ever exposing or demystifying them.
DIRECTOR: Anna Hints; CAST: —; DISTRIBUTOR: Greenwich Entertainment; IN THEATERS: November 24; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 29 min.