Krakow Film Festival 2024

Behind female mystery

RITUAL / Female solidarity through Estonian women continuing an age-old tradition.

What does a woman want? Many have tried to answer, from popular writers to psychoanalysts. Only now, when women themselves have achieved the possibility to speak and be heard in public, first-hand testimonies revealing the presumed mysteries about this «alien species» (a notion celebrated in the title of the notorious Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus book from 1992) are becoming available. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, a first feature film by Estonian director Anna Hints is one such testimony. This Sundance-winning documentary will be screened at the coming Docs Ireland festival later this week, and if you can, make sure not to miss it. It has been celebrated as «a cathartic and lovely experience» in which «women share their innermost secrets and intimate experiences.» But if that is all you expect, you will not like what you see.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood Anna Hints
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, a film by Anna Hints


Smoke Sauna Sisterhood intertwines interpersonal intimacy with the common tradition. As we learn at the end of the film, the tradition of a smoke sauna is part of the culture of the Võro community of southeast Estonia and belongs to the intangible cultural heritage of humanity, protected by Unesco. Detailed presentation of the smoke sauna ritual, from the preparation of the fire to the rubbing of the naked skin of its visitors with the bushel of leaves or a handful of rubbing salt, to the chants and incantations, serves as a setting for the presentation of the unknown history of women in Estonia.


The stress is on here and now, on bringing the protagonists as close as possible to the audience. The camerawork by Ants Tammik has been rightfully celebrated for framing the women so that only parts of their bodies can be seen, chins, backs, breasts, bellies,… and for making visible every detail on their skin, every drop of the sweat, every grain of salt. Sometimes, the face of the woman speaking remains hidden; instead, we watch her words received by someone else. The soundscape further contributes to the sense of intimacy and the community. We hear the sounds recorded from very close, such as water splashing and hissing on the hot stones, mixed with murmured conversations, folk tunes, and original music by Edvard Egilsson and the band Eether.

What does a woman want? Many have tried to answer, from popular writers to psychoanalysts.

Nobody wanted a girl

The absence of distance presents the women as fragile and vulnerable. This is in stark contrast with the harsh environment, from the deep surface ice covering the lake where the women cut a hole to cool off to the hot burning fire. From the images of these fragmented, soft, vulnerable bodies, exposed to the heath and the chill and the harsh treatments with the branches or the salt, another story gradually evolves. The immediate environment turns out to be a metaphor for a more general hostility that women have historically faced and still have to face in society. A society where, as the title of one film song says, Nobody wanted a girl. Or, narrated by one of the protagonists, «When a son was born, he was the new master of the house. But when a daughter was born, oh… The sons worked, but the daughter had to be given away with a dowry in marriage.»

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood Anna Hints
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, a film by Anna Hints

No trivialities

Anna Hints, who is also the lead singer of the band Eether, created a sublime testimony that exceeds the cheerful celebration of female sisterhood and sauna tradition. She subtly managed to provide evidence of the hostility towards women that persists to this day – without ever mentioning it. You might read in the press that the protagonists of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood laugh at such trivialities as sending dick pics. Well, I do not think sending dick pics is trivial, not for those who receive them. As another protagonist observes, when she asks the others, did you ever think of sending the photo of your pussy around? And they all laugh. Of course not! They also laugh at the words their mothers used for the female sexual organ. Because while men believe to be entitled to be sending around pictures of their sexual organs, women have learned to hide it. To this day, they are reluctant about which word to use for it. In the past, it did not even exist, that is, did not have a name, just like menstruation (a phenomenon that takes place once a month in the life of every adult woman) did not have a name – it was, they remember, simply introduced to young girls as «your sickness.» In short, this fine blend of distant and recent memories makes it impossible to put a clear line between the violence of the past, for example of, one grandfather who was repeatedly brutally beating his wife, and the violence of today, for example, the violence of the men who, when a film protagonist asked for help because she has just been raped, they abused her as well.

the tradition of a smoke sauna is part of the culture of the Võro community of southeast Estonia and belongs to the intangible cultural heritage of humanity

The Roots of mystery

The outstanding power and importance of this film lie in the fact that, shown from the most intimate vicinity, the women and their bodies testify to the history of oppression that we are only gradually learning about. Lately, several similar films have been produced. Granny’s Sexual Life, a short animated documentary by Slovene director Urška Djukić and French animator Emilie Pigeard that won the main French film award, The Cesar, for best animated short earlier this year, illustrates the status of Slovenian women in the first half of the 20th century. La Zita, an experimental documentary by the Italian directors Tiziano Doria and Samira Guadagnuolo, the winner of the Thessaloniki Film Festival in 2021, focuses on the memories and ideas about the love shared among the women living in a village in Southern Italy. Hidden Letters, by the acclaimed director and producer Violet Du Feng, about the unique written language created by Chinese women who were not allowed to read or write, jubilated at several documentary film festivals in 2022.

These films are very diverse, but they all show that the question ‘What does a woman want’ is itself wrong. Sisterhood and other presumably mysterious female qualities do not arise from some secret knowledge but result from particular historical conditions. Not a mystery but a reality, often hidden by the musing about the enigmas of female desire. This reality might not be pleasant, but it is important it finally comes to the open.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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