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“In Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, the Women are Voicing Out Their Deepest Feelings and Thoughts, But Here in Sauna Day the Focus is On the Unsaid”: Anna Hints and Tushar Prakash on their Cannes-Debuting short Sauna Day

Sauna Day

When I last interviewed Estonian filmmaker Anna Hints it was to discuss her Sundance 2023-premiering Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, which would go on to win the World Cinema Documentary Competition Directing Award. (It also nabbed Best Documentary at the 36th European Film Awards on its way to becoming Estonia’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars.) The film offers quite a unique peek into a UNESCO-designated tradition that for centuries has allowed women like those the director (and contemporary artist and experimental folk musician) respectfully lenses to bond, heal and reveal in a safe space of smoke and sweat.

And now Hints’s painstakingly crafted short Sauna Day, co-directed with her “partner in life and art,” Indian filmmaker Tushar Prakash (who also served as an editor on Smoke Sauna Sisterhood), transports us to “the world of Southern Estonian men who go to the dark-intimate space of a smoke sauna after a hard day’s work” (per the mysterious synopsis). But if you’re expecting a sort of “brotherhood” followup, think again. Not only is Sauna Day not a look at a group of guys experiencing emotional release as they free themselves from society’s gender-specific constraints, it’s not even purely nonfiction with two very intense actors woven into the otherwise vérité proceedings. Which admittedly made a certain sense to me since Sauna Day happens to include what could be viewed as some hot and sweaty catharsis of the homoerotic sort.

Just after the 13-minute film’s Cannes (Critics’ Week Special Screening) debut, Filmmaker reached out to the unconventional duo to learn all about collaborating on such an unusual and rather provocative project.

Filmmaker: You’ve spoken of sharing “a different understanding of time and storytelling” due to your respective Estonian and Indian cultures, which includes a nonlinear approach and a focus on fairytales and myths over “reality.” But how does this actually influence your filmmaking process, from pre-production through to the final edit?

Hints: My roots are in the indigenous cultures of Võro and Seto in South-East Estonia. My granny, for example, taught me the language of dreams, which was passed on to her by her granny. She taught it as a metaphorical language belonging to a space where one can communicate with the ones who are gone or who are yet to come. She taught it as something very natural, so it is natural also in me. It is normal to me that one can communicate with the dead — I perceive time as cyclic with the access to what is gone or not yet here. It has taken me time to fully embrace my understanding of time as something normal, and also incorporate that into the films and filmmaking.

Just a few years ago I was in Paris, in the museum that was once called the Museum of Primitive Arts. They have changed the name now, as it was not politically correct, but there I saw it all — how culture has been dominated by euro-centric, linear narratives. Yet the narratives I was brought up with and stories I was told growing up were nonlinear, those that belonged to the “primitive” part of culture seen by the dominating institutions. It was there in that museum that I realized that I had tried to fit my thinking into a box that it did not fit and realized I have to embrace my way of perceiving time and space and stories; because only then am I speaking with my authentic voice.

Through the process of making Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, I fully embraced myself also as an intuitive filmmaker, accepting that as an equal way to make films compared to ways we are used to. Intuition is a very important navigating tool in that time and space. The question then becomes how to create time and space for subconsciousness to flow. How not to kill art, life in the film industry, but to let it shine. How to have flexibility in time starting from shooting schedules to the most crucial question: who are the people you choose to create that time and space for films to emerge. It is writing and editing in dreams, where ideas and editing appear in a dream. It is creating in a space where intuition and energy become important tools for building a film structure.

Prakash: I’m pursuing a Masters in Folkloristics, Anthropology, and Cultural Studies, focusing on rituals. I’m fascinated by how rituals, whether mundane or exaggerated, define our humanity. I aim to study and subvert these rituals, exploring their adaptation during migration or conflict. Rituals act as societal codes that define our roles, but they also have many hidden layers.

In India, we are always paying for karma accumulated in the past while generating new karma that we will address in the future. This concept of time and storytelling is intriguing because present conflicts often result from past actions or inactions, sometimes even by our ancestors. One karmic imbalance might take generations for its effects to manifest.

We are the sum of all actions before us, and our actions will impact the future after we are gone. This perspective deeply influences my approach to storytelling, encouraging me to consider conflicts within a broader context that extends beyond the scope of the film’s timeframe. By always keeping this in mind and reflecting it in the script, there is a hope that this concept also reflects in every other aspect of the filmmaking process.

Filmmaker: I read that the men actually built the roof they are discussing in the sauna, which makes me curious about the offscreen world-building that went into this 13-minute film. What exactly did that consist of and why was this preparation important?

Hints and Prakash: There was a mix of actors and non-actors in our film, and we really wanted to work with the men from the community where we were shooting the film. For this unit of men to form, and for the boundaries between the actors and non-actors to blur, we took up the task of doing physical work that would make them bond. Also, you go to the smoke sauna after a hard day’s work to clean yourself — we wanted to keep all these aspects real.

This preparation was also important for all performance aspects to dissolve, and to somehow make the actors really a part of the community. Indeed it is interesting, having a four-day shoot to then — on the fifth day — film the 13 minutes that actually make up the short pretty much in one take. Again comes the crucial question: Who are the people you choose to work with, and are they understanding and supporting the vision?

We really were very lucky with our producers Johanna Maria Paulson and Evelin Penttilä. They fully trusted us and that is the most important asset of filmmaking — having trust between the people.

Filmmaker: Reading the synopsis made me think that Sauna Day would be the brotherhood counterpart to Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, which is far too simplistic of a description. Firstly, it’s obviously a short not a feature. But even more importantly — and though I’ve seen no mention of it — it doubles as a gay S&M film. So what led you to choose both the format and the content for Sauna Day?

Hints and Prakash: The film is like a poem, revolving around a whisking scene that serves as a ritual of communication and bonding between two individuals. This whisking ritual is a common practice in South Estonia. The challenge in cinema is to elevate this ritual into a silent language between the two men without explicitly pointing anything out to the viewer. We aim to leave it ambiguous, allowing viewers to find themselves in the ritual and interpret it in their own ways. Viewers have had varying discussions about the action; some see it as erotic, others view it as mundane, and some see it as a process of purification of desire. Additionally, we wanted the community to recognize this action as believable and authentic, not exaggerated. This was our challenge.

The film also explores code-switching, how we participate in society by conforming to gender roles, and how we communicate with someone in a more individual language. When the characters speak they fulfill their gender roles; however, when they really do “speak” to each other then it is through body language, gestures and glances, breaking gender expectations.

In Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, the women are voicing out their deepest feelings and thoughts, but here in Sauna Day the focus is on the unsaid. Yet it is said, but not in spoken language.

Filmmaker: Unlike with Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, in which all the participants were nonprofessionals, you chose to cast two actors in this short. Was this due to the potentially perceived sexual nature of their scene together? And how do all the nonprofessionals feel about being in a movie that contains such implied homoeroticism?

Hints and Prakash: With professional actors we felt we could reach the nuanced and ambiguous space we aimed for, which was crucial for hitting the right note. We also chose professional actors because the scene was physically demanding. However, one of the actors is from the same community as the nonprofessional actors. We wanted to balance authenticity with creative liberty.

We were transparent with the nonprofessional actors, ensuring they knew they were part of a film exploring these characters and the deep ambiguous bond they share. Choosing professional actors also protects the community and hopefully validates the courage to be vulnerable. We were talking a lot about vulnerability, gender roles. When there is no language, then many stories like our story remain invisible, lost in history.

Filmmaker: Finally, considering Anna’s background as an Estonian director and Tushar’s as an Indian filmmaker (and graduate of the National Polish Film School in Lodz), I’m curious to hear how you actually met and decided to become “partners in life and art.” How do you choose which projects to collaborate on?

Hints and Prakash: We met in an EAVE (European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs) workshop in Luxembourg in 2016. Filmmaking can be such a lonely and grueling process; it’s beautiful to have someone with whom you can create and share the burden of making a movie. Having someone who genuinely supports you and your ideas makes the filmmaking process much easier. Just as the flora and fauna are enriched when two geological and geographical regions meet, so too is the creativity when diverse personalities come together and learn from each other.

The roles can change in different films, but the creative influence is there. In choosing a project we both need to feel very strongly and personally about it. Only then can we put our hearts fully to the film, whatever roles we have for that project.

Prakash: I’d add that the same formula doesn’t work for every project; new approaches need to be developed for each one. As we continue to work on future projects and pursue our individual endeavors, we will find ways to support each other.

Hints: I fully believe in life and art that one plus one equals three.

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