2023 Sundance Film Festival Interview: Anna Hints Talks Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (Exclusive)

Women deserve the right to share their innermost thoughts in order to overcome their fears and regain their strength. Filmmaker Anna Hints captures the intimate ritual of women sharing their secrets in a stunningly visceral and absorbing way in her new documentary, ‘Smoke Sauna Sisterhood.’

Hints made her feature film writing and directorial debuts on the project. She proved her talent as a filmmaker by working closely with the movie’s cinematographer, Ants Tammik, to engage viewers in the subjects’ emotional stories through chiaroscuro.

The women who are featured in the film share stories about what their bodies have experienced and withstood throughout their lives. The testimonies are deeply personal while also feeling universally recognizable. Hints honors the healing space and tradition of the sauna, as well as the empowering vulnerability of the women she features in the documentary, with her striking and engrossing portrait.

Set in a lush green forest in southern Estonia, ‘Smoke Sauna Sisterhood’ follows a group of women who gather in the safe darkness of the titular sauna to share their innermost thoughts and secrets. Enveloped by a warm, dense heat, they bare all to expel the shame that’s trapped in their bodies and regain their strength.

‘Smoke Sauna Sisterhood’ screened during the World Cinema Documentary Competition section of last month’s Sundance Film Festival. Hints generously took the time during the festival to talk about scribing and helming the movie during an exclusive interview over Zoom.

The conversation began with Hints sharing why she was inspired to make a documentary that features women as they share their secrets, fears and shame about their bodies, as well as their process of regaining their strength. “My roots are in southern Estonia and its smoke sauna tradition. There’s one very specific moment where I think the roots of this film started.

“When I was 11 years old, my grandfather died. We went to a sauna with my grandmother and aunt. It was there that my grandmother shared something that she had never spoken about before; my grandfather had cheated on her,” the writer revealed.

“She actually cried it out and let the anger that was inside her. In that way, she was able to make peace with my grandfather,” Hints also divulged.

“At the end of the sauna, she was laughing. The next day, we were able to bury my grandfather in peace,” the filmmaker continued.

“I remember having a feeling of peace and understanding. I understood that this place wasn’t just a place to wash your body; it was also a place to wash your soul. Stories and confessions that happen in smoke saunas, which are safe, protected spaces, don’t happen on the outside,” Hints noted.

“I also learned in connection to this film is that when you have a community of the sisterhood around us, it supports us to let out all kinds of emotions and experiences. Nothing is too embarrassing or sad. Through the sharing, healing happens,” the scribe added.

Hints then delved into how she approached directing ‘Smoke Sauna Sisterhood’ once production began. “The journey of this film took seven years. I knew some of the women who are in it before the production. But there are also quite a few women I met during that seven-year process.

“It has been a truly spiritual journey. I was in the sauna with the women, so every time someone shared their stories, something in me as a director grew. It was a healing process for me, too, as I also shared my stories,” the filmmaker shared.

“The way we filmed the movie was interesting because saunas are hot spaces. We had a cooling system, and made sure there was enough water. Our cinematographer (Ants Tammik) also had ice packs on,” Hints also shared. “I went through these cooling rituals with the women every few hours.

“The journey has been so inspiring. Every one of the women has given me so much as a person and a director,” the helmer added.

Further speaking about her collaboration with Tammik as the film’s cinematographer, Hints disclosed how the camera was able to fit into the sauna’s tight spaces. She also discussed how she and the director of photography obscured the women’s identities by only revealing their faces in chiaroscuro.

“Besides film directing, one of my areas of education is photography. So a film’s visuals are so important to me,” the filmmaker revealed. “Smoke saunas are so photographic, so I had the vision that they’re kind ok like a renaissance-like painting.

“So I was looking for cinematographers who would be ready to come to this hot sauna, and not change it with a fake cold one. Ants Tammik, who was my coursemate, said he was ready to do that,” Hints shared.

“At first, I looked for a female cinematographer. But then I decided that I would look in terms of the human being, as it went beyond gender. I wanted to work with someone who supported the vision that I had,” the director revealed. “Ants was the perfect choice, as he’s amazing and sensitive.”

“Then we did a test trial with a woman who was in most of the saunas, to see how she felt with Ants. She felt very comfortable with him,” Hints also divulged.

“It was very important to me that all of the women trusted me. So there was a continuous dialogue between me and the women about how they felt. Whenever they wanted to leave, or record something with just text, we did it,” the filmmaker continued.

“Somehow Ants was so sensitive that it all flowed together,” Hints noted. “Since we know each other, I had an intuition with him, and we also had a silent language between us. He also knows my taste and what I was looking for, so he captured everything very nice. I’m very happy” with how he shot ‘Smoke Sauna Sisterhood.’

Once all of the footage for the documentary was shot, the helmer worked with the feature’s editors – Tushar Prakash, Martin Männik, Hendrik Mägar and Qutaiba Barhamji– to put the final version of the project together. “During the editing process, we started with Tushar Prakash, and we went through all the material. It was very interesting because we were basically living with the material for six or eight months.”

The duo worked on looking through the footage for so long that “Sometimes I had dreams, in which the stories and edits to include came to me. The next day, we would try it out,” Hints also shared.

“For Sundance documentary fund support, we edited a 20-minute clip with Martin Männik,” the filmmaker continued. “We worked on the final edit with Hendrik Mägar.

“It was all very helpful because during the editing process, you can get very lost with all of the stories and possibilities. But I had these wonderful partners like Hendrik, and there was a beautiful connection between our minds and souls. He also analyzes the structure and sees things that I didn’t see anymore, after spending months filming the material,” Hints revealed.

“But finding these stories tiij time. When you have different stories and put them together, they eventual start to resonate. But it took time,” the director added.

Hints then delved into how she feels honored that ‘Smoke Sauna Sisterhood’ screened during the World Cinema Documentary Competition at last month’s Sundance Film Festival. “We’re grateful and very happy. This is my first feature film, and I’m so happy with all of the people who have put their hearts and talent into this film. It’s such a privilege to be able to bring the film to Sundance and have everyone who worked on it with me attend the festival. Now the dream of attending Sundance has come true – we always dreamed of bringing the film to the festival.

“We also didn’t just make the film for us; we make films to share. So being able to come so far across the ocean and share this part of our culture at the festival is so amazing,” the filmmaker further gushed.

“I hope that people who see the film feel as though they’re also in the smoke sauna. Even if they have never been to a sauna, they can still feel as though they’re surrounded by this sisterhood, and find a story they relate to. They can also leave the cinema with more courage to share everything. I really feel that we should share things, and there’s no experience that’s too harsh, sad or embarrassing,” Hints continued.

“Silence keeps the violence going. Healing instead comes from speaking about it. That way, we can understand that we’re not alone, and there are others who have experienced the same things,” the helmer added.

“When I’ve been in saunas with women, you initially think that other women haven’t experienced the same things as you. But once you hear their stories, you understand that they have experienced the same things. That’s powerful, as you understand that you’re not alone, and there’s nothing to be ashamed about. That’s important to me, and I feel it (was) important to share at Sundance,” Hints concluded.

A still from ‘Smoke Sauna Sisterhood’ by Anna Hints, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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