Heat and light

Anna Hints on capturing the soul of the Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

by Amber Wilkinson

Water is a crucial element in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. Anna Hints: 'Water was very important because when you think about water, how it takes different forms, there is ice, there is steam. For me, there is huge hope in that'
Water is a crucial element in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. Anna Hints: 'Water was very important because when you think about water, how it takes different forms, there is ice, there is steam. For me, there is huge hope in that' Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Estonian director Anna Hints has been busy breaking new ground with Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. Last month it became the first Estonian documentary to be screened at Sundance and, indeed, as Hints pointed out to me when we caught up over Zoom, “any of the big five festivals”, including Cannes and Toronto.

That was just the start of the achievements of her intimate film about traditional smoke saunas in the south of her homeland, which went on to win a special jury prize for directing in Utah. It’s a deserving prize for a film that treats its subjects with extreme care - something not so easy within the small confines of a rural smoke sauna cabin, where the women involved are not just baring their bodies but also, often, their souls.

The roots of the film, the director says, lie in her own childhood. She grew up in the region where the sauna has become an entry on UNESCO’s list of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” and visits to one were a part of her formative years. 26302

She recalls events surrounding the death of her grandfather, whose body was awaiting burial in the family home.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood director Anna Hints: 'I know that I have to follow my deep inner voice and intuition. I just need to trust that'
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood director Anna Hints: 'I know that I have to follow my deep inner voice and intuition. I just need to trust that' Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
“Me, my granny, my niece, my aunt, we went to the smoke sauna,” she says. “It was there my granny shared things that she never shared before or after. She told how grandfather had betrayed her and lived with another woman. She let out her anger, frustration, disappointment, all these things out and made peace with grandfather. Then we went out and the next day all of us could bury grandfather in peace. So I understood as an 11-year-old that, okay, there is this kind of safe space or place where you can really share your emotions and experiences.”

Hints talks about the way that the sauna is embedded in society in her region, so part of the fabric that, when you’re there it seems you barely notice its intricacy.

“It’s natural there is a grandmother, for example, who speaks with ancestors, or that you give food to yourself, but also to your dead great-granny. These kinds of things are just there, and you take it, in a way, for granted.”

It was, paradoxically, by leaving her culture behind to go travelling in the US that Hints found herself drawn back to it.

“I was living for months in America,” she recalls. It was there where I realised that I have roots and I have heritage and its richness. It was through the context of Native Americans. They were singing their songs - and we have our songs. And there was a sweat lodge. And I realised like, oh, but we have a smoke sauna. That changed my perspective, in a way I had to go to the other edge of the world to realise it.”

The film takes us into this hot, steamy and smoky intimate world, where - in this case - women talk about the tapestry of their lives, including their trauma. The film was seven years in development.

“I'm very intuitive filmmaker,” she says. “And when you're an intuitive filmmaker, what you need is to give yourself time to emerge, for these things to kind of take their shapes.”

The film relies on a high level of trust between Hints and her crew and the women who are taking the various saunas. Something that seems as though, at least on paper, would have been made more tricky by the fact that her cinematographer Ants Tammik is a bloke. Hints says the confidence in her of the participants was crucial.

Anna Hints: 'You cannot create intimacy without having trust and this trust has to be authentic'
Anna Hints: 'You cannot create intimacy without having trust and this trust has to be authentic' Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

“Trust is the fundamental thing that we are working with. You cannot create intimacy without having trust and this trust has to be authentic. It was the way the whole production was working, it had to be in accordance with this trust and intimacy and the space between people. As a director you need to find the team that is supporting the vision and supporting the way you do things and I feel that I've been very lucky and very blessed.

Regarding Tammik, she adds: “I was, in the beginning, thinking of a female cinematographer but in my cinematography I'm very demanding because I have one degree in photography so I'm a director who thinks very audiovisually. At some point I thought I cannot just restrict myself to gender, I will follow the artists whose way of seeing is what I know I can trust; that they can embody what I'm looking for.”

Tammik had been a coursemate and Hints said she settled on him after a test sauna with one of their subjects. “She was totally free with him,” she recalls. “Then I knew that, okay, we can work on that. So in a way it became at some point in the production, something that goes beyond genders.”

She adds: “Both him and the sound recordist have said that they feel very humbled and thankful for this journey - that they have learned a lot.”

Tammik wore swimwear as he shot the film, which also brought with it a number of physical challenges, given the intense heat and conditions of the sauna.

Anna Hints at the Sundance awards, where she won a directing prize
Anna Hints at the Sundance awards, where she won a directing prize Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
“It's very challenging. One sauna session lasts around four hours,” says Hints. “It was very important to find someone who was ready to shoot in the really hot sauna, because that's where things start to emerge. I couldn't think about faking it. So it was a challenge, also for the camera and for the lenses. At least two hours before shooting he would put these lenses on the ground, then after some time up to the first level so the camera would be okay with the heat and the moisture because it's not just hot it’s also moist because there's so much water.

“He also had ice bags around him because the camera is hot and he had like, cold cloth on his head. It all became like some kind of like a trance. The trust was there. We felt the people in the sauna forgot about the camera, and it's interesting, because the camera can come very close to you. Somehow, it was not an issue at all. As a director, you are a human being and you're connected with these other human beings. It wouldn't be possible when you are not yourself and not ready to be vulnerable.”

One of the key elements of the film is a physical element - water. It’s there in the vapour of the sauna, which helps Hints incorporate dreamy sequences outlining the history of the practice and its cultural place in Estonia. It’s also present as blocks of ice outside the sauna in winter, which the women have cut away in order to take a dip in the freezing water below. Within the sauna itself, it provides a soundtrack of drips and drops, but is also seen cascading like sparks of the women’s backs or running from them, conjuring ideas of purification.

“It was very important, because in the development of the film, I was thinking about the elements,” says Hints. “There is the water element, there is the fire element, there is air, there is wood. So I was thinking about those things. It came to me organically, but already in the beginning I wanted to have what I call a water layer in the film. Because water is an essential part of a smoke sauna. You clean yourself with water and there are chants, which you also see there, like, “Water, take the pain away”. It was like the question, how do I put this into the film, so that I don't mention it, but that you would sense it?

“This feeling of nature and this cyclical feeling is because the system where the smoke sauna belongs is, I think, the essence of the worldview I’m carrying. We have a different understanding of time, time is not linear, time is cyclic, everything is cyclic. When you’re in the smoke sauna, you’re inside, then you go out, you breathe, you come in, you go out, it’s like nature, it is in a constant cycle. I hoped that through that structure it gives you this kind of sense of timelessness or cyclicness. Water was very important because when you think about water, how it takes different forms, there is ice, there is steam. For me, there is huge hope in that, in water. It is an element taking different forms, but always in cycle. I meditate on water a lot.”

Anna Hints: 'When you’re in the smoke sauna, you’re inside, then you go out, you breathe, you come in, you go out, it’s like nature, it is in a constant cycle'
Anna Hints: 'When you’re in the smoke sauna, you’re inside, then you go out, you breathe, you come in, you go out, it’s like nature, it is in a constant cycle' Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Hints doesn’t need to describe the power of the sauna to us, she just lets us observe for ourselves as the women’s stories take shape in the steam.

“The intimacy and the sisterhood and the supportive safe space allows us to open up a lot. I very strongly believe in the healing power of that. There is power in speaking it out, in singing it out or chanting it out, or just releasing it and connecting with your voice.

“The concrete idea for the film came when in 2015, I was in a monastery with my mum. I was doing a silent retreat, it was 26 days of silence. In that silence, the idea came, because I realised the importance of your voice. When you're silent for 26 days, you cannot read, you cannot write, you cannot talk, then suddenly I understood the power of this, the power of our voice. Sometimes the experience comes out, not even in words, but through just a voice, like letting some kind of sound out. So it has a very deep healing quality.”

It comes as little surprise to hear that the director said she “needed a smoke sauna after Sundance” in order to “reconnect with the things that I need to express”.

Now Hints is working on two fiction feature ideas, although she’s not keen on the blanket term.

“I like to work on the line where documentary and fiction meet, where you cannot fully define what it is exactly.”

She is also just finishing a short, shot on a garbage field in India, which “walks between documentary and fiction”

She adds: “One idea of the long films takes me away from Estonia, yet Estonia comes in a way there. And another one takes me to Estonia. So I'm finding myself. I'm curious, I'm always challenging myself with every project. But definitely I know that I have to follow my deep inner voice and intuition. I just need to trust that. That’s what the journey of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood really taught me. I trust the process without focusing too much on the end result. You feel alive and you are able to surprise yourself.”

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