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“I Realized That a Sauna Is Not Just for Cleaning the Body, but Also the Soul”: Anna Hints on Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

A woman stands nude in a dark room, her face is covered by a bouquet of aromatic leaves.Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Debuting January 22 in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is an intimate look at a tradition that UNESCO has added to its “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” This might appear to be a heavy designation for a way to sweat out stress. Unless, of course, one happens to be South Estonian like director Anna Hints, who grew up with the knowledge that for centuries smoke saunas have also been a place of life (birth) and death. For the small group of women that have generously allowed Hints to serve as a cinematic fly-on-the-wall witness to a sacred space of power, smoke saunas also offer freedom and healing where one can bond through joyous laughter and traumatic confessions—with both one another and themselves.

To learn more about this unusual project, Filmmaker reached out to Hints, the film’s equally unique director—also “scriptwriter and composer with a background in contemporary art, photography and experimental folk music”—whose bio additionally notes that they are an “active dumpster diver” that currently calls India their second home.

Filmmaker: How exactly did this project come about? Considering your background includes contemporary art and photography, were you always certain it would be a feature-length doc?

Hints: My roots are in South Estonia, where the tradition of smoke sauna culture is still very much alive. I can say that in a way this film idea started when I was 11 years old. My grandfather had died, his body was in the farmhouse, and I along with my granny, aunt and niece went to the sauna a day before the funeral. It was there that my grandmother shared with us for the first and last time that my grandfather had cheated on her. Granny let the hurt and anger out, made peace with my grandfather, and the next day she could bury him in peace. It was then that I realized that a sauna is not just for cleaning the body, but also the soul. I realized that with the support from the community around you, all emotions can be released and cleansed in the safe, dark, sacred space of a smoke sauna.

But the concrete idea for making a film on smoke saunas and women came to me in 2015 when I was at a Buddhist monastery participating in a silent retreat with my mother, with whom I have had a turbulent relationship. I felt there, in the silence, the importance of sharing our experiences and what power the voice can have; how healing and empowering is the possibility to tell your story and also share it with others. Voice has power, and sharing our voice with others empowers. Sharing stories and relating with others’ stories heals.

So I shared my film idea with a nun there and asked if I could write it down, if they could make an exception for me (as we were not permitted to speak, read or write). The nun refused, saying that if the idea is important and powerful it will remain with me. She told me that if I still have the feeling after 26 days then that’s the feeling to follow. Now I have followed the idea for seven years! And I was always certain it would be a feature-length documentary film, instantly it felt like the right thing to do. But subject-wise, I am hoping to explore smoke saunas in some of my future fiction projects, too.

Filmmaker: How did you cast these “sisters”? Are any of them friends or relatives?

Hints: Women and smoke saunas have a special connection. A smoke sauna used to be the place where women gave birth, washed the dead and did healing rituals. I already knew some of the women in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, but not all of them. Some are friends, some of them entered my life during the seven years it took to make the film. I met them, felt a connection and invited them to take part.

There is also my own story in the film. The sisterhood really formed throughout the process. And sisterhood doesn’t even need to be between women, it doesn’t depend on gender, it goes beyond gender. It’s about community. It is the connection between humans who support each other and with whom any story can be shared. When there is support from the community, then no experience is too harsh, too sad or too embarrassing to be shared. Every story and experience has a birthright!

Filmmaker: I found it interesting that much of the time we’re not sure which naked bodies belong to which faces. Was that an artistic decision? A means to obscure identities and thus put everyone more at ease? Both?

Hints: In a smoke sauna you leave identities behind, outside in the dressing room together with your clothes. As the smoke sauna is dark, you just feel bodies, hear voices and are not even always aware of who might be talking. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood normalizes human bodies and talks about the experience of being in a female body. It works to make you feel okay with nudity, and makes one ask why nakedness causes so much discomfort—especially the nakedness of female bodies. It strips away the sexualizing glances and naturalizes the naked body. By the end of the film, you even forget about the nudity, and that is exactly how a real smoke sauna experience is.

Some women in the film chose to hide their faces. I felt this to be a strong statement on where we are as a society. The fact that in the 21st century women still feel that by sharing their experiences they could harm themselves shows how far we still have to go. And if anyone does feel uncomfortable watching Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, then I encourage them to look into that discomfort and self-reflect about it. I hope that in the end, while leaving the cinema, one feels more comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Filmmaker: You’re also an experimental folk musician, which made me curious about your approach to the sound design. Can you talk a bit about this?

Hints: Actually, you hear a lot of my voice in the film. The original score is a creative collaboration between Icelandic composer Edvard Egilsson and experimental folk trio EETER [Anna Hints, Marja-Liisa Plats and Ann Reimann]. Edvard came to Estonia last year to experience a smoke sauna session, better understand the atmosphere, get the acoustic feeling and hear the sound palette. The sound designer for our film is the acclaimed Icelandic sound designer Huldar Freyr Arnarson. Edvard worked closely with him and made sure the atmosphere of a smoke sauna came alive in the film.

Most of the sounds inside the saunas during principle photography were recorded by Tanel Kadalipp. He, together with cinematographer Ants Tammik, were true heroes—they even had to have a cooling system in order to survive the long hours in the heat together with their equipment! We really tried to capture the actual, heat both visually and sonically. Also, there are chants and songs naturally happening inside the smoke sauna. Voice is an important tool of self-expression and healing. And sharing stories is itself a soundscape; women are not silent, they speak up. For me, this is also part of sound design.

As for myself and making music, a lot was recorded in Iceland while I was in the studio with Edvard. There is a wonderful piece he composed with voice improvisation by his life partner, the cellist and singer Unnur Jónsdóttir, and me. I love how Icelandic and Estonian voices meet there. Edvard created sounds with buckets, and edited and arranged the bits and pieces of the sounds that he had recorded in the smoke sauna. In our culture, a smoke sauna is considered a living entity, so of course a smoke sauna also has a voice—it speaks, sings and chants together with the sisterhood. Overall, we are very happy with the whole sound design. We are dreaming of releasing a soundtrack album that itself is like a journey through a smoke sauna in chants, songs, sounds, female stories and atmospheres.

Filmmaker: How does everyone feel about the film launching at Sundance? Are any of the participants ambivalent about seeing their private ritual go so public?

Hints: We are all very excited, as Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is the first Estonia documentary feature to be selected at Sundance. That means a lot. I am attending with my talented and inspiring team: producer Marianne Ostrat, cinematographer Ants Tammik, editors Hendrik Mägar and Tushar Prakash, composer Edvard Egilsson and Icelandic co-producer Hlin Johannesdottir. And representing the sisterhood is our main protagonist Kadi Kivilo. She has been extremely bold and vulnerable in the film and even agreed to reveal her identity during the filming. Kadi has really been a kind of “sauna keeper” and space provider for the other women. It warms my heart a lot that she is coming to Sundance. It gives me the feeling that this is a sisterhood not only inside, but also outside of the film. And everyone is just so happy that this film—made with a lot of sweat (literally!) and love—has reached across the big ocean.

And then there’s my biggest supporter on this journey, producer Marianne Ostrat, who believed in me and the film at a very difficult time after the death of producer Eero Talvistu, with whom I developed the project and who had attached our French co-producer Juliette Cazanave. Marianne was the one who managed to turn Smoke Sauna Sisterhood into a trilateral co-production (between Estonia, France and Iceland) and encouraged and inspired everyone to dream big. The way we produced this film was pretty magical—living all together in a farm house, taking water from a well, washing in a pond. Marianne really brought the magic of a smoke sauna into the production.

Finally, I should also mention that for me as a film director, it is very important to be transparent with the people I work with. So I did include the women who shared their stories with me in the editing process, showing various versions to them and making them feel that the sisterhood would last longer than the production. As filmmakers, building trust is our responsibility, and that cannot be violated. All the participating women have given their blessing to Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, and hope that their shared stories can touch the hearts of people on the other side of the Atlantic as well.

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