Secrets through the smoke

Anna Hints and Tushar Prakash on code-switching and capturing the unsaid in Sauna Day

by Amber Wilkinson

Anna Hints on Sauna Day: 'The intimacy is not vocalised, there is like the fragility of male intimacy, the fragility of masculinity, they speak, but not through vocalising their feelings or their thoughts'
Anna Hints on Sauna Day: 'The intimacy is not vocalised, there is like the fragility of male intimacy, the fragility of masculinity, they speak, but not through vocalising their feelings or their thoughts'
Anna Hints’ debut feature documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood - about the shared intimacy between women sharing an Estonian tradition - garnered award after award as it travelled the world. And she was in Cannes with a companion piece, of sorts. Fictional short Sauna Day, which is co-written and co-directed by Hints’ creative and life partner Tushar Prakash, shows a secret unfold between two men in the safe space of the sauna.

Hints says: “Listening to the sisterhood talking and sharing, also naturally gave this impulse to also observe what are the men doing in the smoke sauna.” But she says that she was also driven by questioning ideas surrounding expectations of men and women.

“I think the question of gender has always been very personal to me, actually, because I've never felt fitting to the gender roles that are perceived. Since childhood, I have been questioning them. Or I never fit into, you know, how you're born into a female body, and should act a certain way. So I think it is like a deeper process, not just Smoke Sauna Sisterhood or Sauna Day even, but one of the things that I'm really interested in is, do we have a choice? It's not just gender, but the questions of, for example, in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, where is my voice among all the voices? How do I recognise my voice? Where is the voice that I'm listening to in my life coming from? And what are the patterns that one generation puts on the other?”

Tushar Prakash and Anna Hints with their team in Cannes
Tushar Prakash and Anna Hints with their team in Cannes Photo: Erlend Staub
With Smoke Sauna Sisterhood the intimacy develops through shared experiences and with the short Hints says it was “how to capture the unsaid” which was important. In the men’s company it's noticeable that the emphasis is on physical interactions rather than verbal ones.

Hints says she received feedback from men that suggested they had a very different experience of the smoke saunas to the women. She recalls one saying: “We talk about bullshit, not about the real shit and avoid intimacy.”

She adds: “There was the sense that they had never experienced this kidn of shared open intimacy where they give voice to what they feel. And that for me became very interesting. The intimacy is not vocalised, there is like the fragility of male intimacy, the fragility of masculinity, they speak, but not through vocalising their feelings or their thoughts. Also it’s a challenge - how different would it then be? So it's fiction, but a lot of real stories were inspirational, including in my own family who that inspired.”

The Estonian director said she and Prakash felt that they could more authentically explore these ideas within a short fiction framework.

She adds: “When I talk about gender I talk about the patriarchal mindset goes beyond genders and we're all suffering because of that and even Iin Smoke Sauna Siserhood a lot of women shared how they had internalised that patriarchal mindset. You see that the first glance to their baby girl is a judgement, a kind of, objectifying glance, checking out what they look like, it shows how deep it is there. In this traditional village setting, on the one hand it gives you belonging but on the other hand, you belong, but you have to follow the certain rules to belong.

“Nobody wants to vocalise things. My granny was telling about her childhood, that she remembers two women, for example, living together. But you know, they were just living together and everybody knew they were living together but they never vocalised that. A lot is invisible and it is like you don't even find the words to start expressing it so that was fascinating to me.

Prakash explains that that was also why they opted for a film that was gesture-based and quiet.

Sauna Day. Tushar Prakash:  'We felt that was also very cinematic, how the story is told through the gestures, through just the silent glances'
Sauna Day. Tushar Prakash: 'We felt that was also very cinematic, how the story is told through the gestures, through just the silent glances'
“It's like code-switching,” he says, “When they are with the other men there is a certain code that they are adhering to. And then once they leave then there's a switch in the code and this kind of it's all done through gestures, eye contact, vibrations, body language. We felt that was also very cinematic, how the story is told through the gestures, through just the silent glances and and then they switch back - once they wear their clothes, then the code-switching happens.”

When it comes to changing roles, that is something that Hints and Prakash also do, since they are life partners as well as a creative team, so how is it to strike the balance between work life and home life?

Hints says, “It is honestly super-challenging. It's like they say, ‘Oh be careful what you wish for’. I always dreamed we could share this deep passion for creation, for art, for cinema. But this kind of creation, where you are making films together, and Tushar was one of the editors of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood also, it is challenging. I think we are in the process of figuring out how to have a healthy balance between work that we are both passionate about and then putting that work away, and having time off away.”

Prakash adds: “One of the foundations of participating in society is code switching, you know, we all do it without even knowing it when we switch from one language to another language.We do it with everybody, our parents, our children, our partners. So that's the challenge, you know, at what point to yes, transition from, from being directors to being partners. And also, the thing is, I think that filmmaking is very demanding, and can be a very lonely process, as well. So it's very valuable to have somebody with whom there is an alignment of tastes, an alignment of values. The dips never happened together, so if one person is hitting bottom, the other one is still surfacing. So it also helps out in that way, that there's somebody kind of looking out for your ideas.”

“I think it is also very important lesson on humbleness,” adds Hints. “I just personally believe that one plus one equals three, and this is in life, this is in art. I love the places where there are borders, for example, like two cultures colliding or in nature, where continents meet like in Iceland, for example. There is a lot of creation and there can be explosions, it's the challenge that is, at the same time, so inspiring.”

Hints says having the same cinematographer onboard, Ants Tammik, was a big advantage, since he was also familiar how to keep the camera - and himself - functioning in the heat of he sauna - something we talked about in a previous interview. She notes that she has also spent about seven years of her life working with the smoke sauna space.

She adds the rituals of the smoke sauna continue to fascinate her. She adds: “I see the smoke sauna as this kind of canvas to explore human connection and intimacy and how differently it can come out. The challenge is finding this difference, not just repeating something. I would not have wanted to repeat [Smoke Sauna Sisterhood] with men talking because first of all, I feel it's not accurate to that real intimacy and how gender roles and masculinity are perceived in a smoke sauna. It's like opposite to social media because in social media we cover ourselves, how we appear, what clothes I put on today, but when you enter a smoke sauna you always take the clothes off and it's not just physical clothes it's like metaphysical clothes, metaphorical clothes.”

Although the two main characters are played by actors - Rasmus Kaljujärv and Agur Seim - there are also non-professionals, a mix that Hints says she and Prakash like.

She says the most important thing when it comes to casting is to make what they are aiming for understandable.

She explains: “What is the process I am inviting them into? And do they understand that and do they want to join in? How we make films is unconventional to the typical fiction film setting.One of the producers said that from a distance it felt like a creative camp.”

The pair spent a lot of time with the people who were involved and they actually did build a roof in the course of the filming.

Sauna Day. Anna Hints: 'When you enter a smoke sauna you always take the clothes off and it's not just physical clothes it's like metaphysical clothes, metaphorical clothes'
Sauna Day. Anna Hints: 'When you enter a smoke sauna you always take the clothes off and it's not just physical clothes it's like metaphysical clothes, metaphorical clothes'

She adds: “I feel as a director the biggest task is to provide the space for you to feel safe, creative and vulnerable and then enter to that certain state. While watching this outside from the monitor, we could feel the energy and it was basically done in one take.

Prakash added: “On that day it was a very demanding set-up for the actors and fo the DoP and for the boom operator (Timo Kiirend), let’s not forget him. So we had actually given everybody in that space the power to also say “cut”.So we had kind of democratised it that day.”

Sauna Day was filmed in just three weeks last year and was something Hints says she found fulfilling because she had been travelling so extensively with Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. They’ve also made a short about a teenage garbage picker in India called The Weight Of Light, which is also on the festival circuit, and they also made an episode which features Prakash visiting Hints’ relatives in the south of Estonia to “learn how to be and Estonian man”.

Prakash adds: It’s about Code switching and code-learning… how through work you're learning the code of nationality and belonging and belonging to that culture. And the toll it takes on also your own indigenous code that you have inside you. And also, this trying to adhere to this myth of men that is being handed down.”

Now they’re both planning a bit of a break. Although Hints adds: “I have so many ideas, and so many creative impulses and we're going to start working on those ideas.

“Right now, the big question for me is how to burn creatively, but not to burn out? It comes down to this, how we do what we do. And how to create the structures and processes that are fulfilling and creative and healthy and it comes down to who are the people we surround ourselves with and who are ready to dive into the unknown and and are ready to create the structures of filmmaking.”

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