The Naked Truth

in 61st Viennale – Vienna International Film Festival

by Nachum Mochiach

According to Wikipedia, taking a sauna “begins with having a wash (usually a shower), followed by a sit in the sauna room, the room being typically warmed to 80–110 °C (176–230 °F). Water is thrown on the hot stones topping the kiuas, a special stove used to warm up the sauna. This produces great amounts of wet steam, known as löyly, increasing the moisture and the apparent temperature within the sauna. Only the word löyly (or Leil in Estonian) is used for this particular type of steam. Soft drinks or beer are traditional refreshments after having a sauna.


It may sound like an operating manual, but Estonian director Anna Hints’ documentary, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (Savvussana sosarad, 2023), is anything but a technical film on the subject. Instead, in her first feature film Hints explores the intimate lives and hidden secrets of a group of women. They come to the steam room and while following the rituals, they are sharing their intimate experiences and wash of the shame trapped in their bodies. The original smoke sauna tradition (as practiced in Finland) was a part of the filmmaker’s own childhood, and she says that this is one of the reasons she decided to make this film. Finland shares maritime borders with Estonia and the other Baltic countries, and has its cultural influence on them.

The film that won the FIPRESCI award at this year’s Viennale is a beautiful portrait of womanhood and sharing female secrets. Every one of them has her own private and personal story. And maybe because they are completely nude in the hot and humid wooden steam room, while it’s frizzy and snowy outside, they feel like opening their hearts and emotions getting, too. While preparing the sauna or going to the frozen lake nearby when it’s over, but especially when they sweat in the wooden sauna room, they keep telling each other the most intimate stories of their lives..


One of the women talk about how she suffered from a fat and ugly body image because of her mother’s comments when she was a teenager. Another woman shares how her desire for a woman suddenly arose in her, after she had only dated men. Others also talk about sexual experiences, some of them are amusing, others are painful as they talk about sexual explaotation and abortions, and there is even a shocking case of a rape that is mentioned in the conversations. It seems that the atmosphere in the hot, wooden sauna room and the frozen lake outside – an integral part of the whole ritual – brings them closer together and creates a strong and cohesive female bond. This allows the stories, even the most difficult ones, to come out, and the film serves as a kind of therapy and healing for these women.

In addition to this complex narrative, Hints provides an inspiring aesthetic framework. Anats Tamik’s creative cinematography is nothing short of wonderful. Using lights and shadows and focusing on close-ups of the women’s bare body parts, the camera reveals as much as it hides, which gives a new validity to the women’s stories. The shots of the winter atmosphere in the picturesque Estonian village also give the stories a kind of a mythical touch.

The soundtrack of the film is something else – building and atmosphere of ambiguity and mystery. Part of the music was written, composed and performed by Eeter, a group that experiments with musical worlds where ambient meets psychedelic, and where raw folk tunes are combined with electronic sounds, voice and piano. Hints, who is a musician as well as a filmmaker and script writer, is a leading member of this women’s trio.

The other musician that contributed to the film’s soundtrack is Eðvarð Egilsson, a composer from Reykjavík, Iceland. He focuses on a combination of orchestral and experimental electronic music, with classical composition. The enchanted and magical music in some parts of the film add to the sacred feeling of a whole world that is rich in tradition and customs. In a way it does look a bit like a very interesting mix of reality and fairy tale.  

Nachum Mochiach
Edited by Pamela Jahn