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SUNDANCE 2023 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Anna Hints • Director of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

“In the protective darkness of the smoke sauna, all emotions can come out, and no experience is too harsh or too embarrassing”


- We sat down with the Estonian director to talk about her documentary feature debut and about the importance of sharing secrets

Anna Hints • Director of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
(© Kaupo Kikkas)

Estonian director Anna Hints makes her documentary feature debut with Smoke Sauna Sisterhood [+see also:
film review
interview: Anna Hints
film profile
, an affecting and empowering story of the women who cleanse their bodies and souls within the darkness of a smoke sauna. As we experience the heat and the haze of the sauna, the film lets its protagonists tell their tales of oppression, fear and disappointment. But there’s always a sense of hope as they find a community to confide in.

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As the film prepared to have its world premiere as part of the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition, Hints shared some of her thoughts about the importance of sharing secrets.

Cineuropa: What inspired you to share the magic – and the secrets – of a smoke sauna and commit it to a documentary?
Anna Hints: When I was 11 years old, my grandfather had died, and my granny, my aunt, my niece and I went together to a smoke sauna. There, my grandmother shared with us the truth 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. That was when I realised that a sauna is not just for cleansing the body, but also the soul.

The concrete film idea 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. There, in the silence, I felt the importance of sharing our experiences and just how much power the voice has. In the protective darkness of the smoke sauna, all emotions can come out, and no experience is too harsh or too embarrassing; every voice has the right to express itself.

How did you approach the subject, knowing that a sauna is a place for secrets, but ones which would be amplified by appearing on the big screen?
That was a challenge and always is a challenge in this kind of filmmaking: how do you show a deep, secluded space on the big screen so that the essence of it remains? I believe this is the responsibility of the director: you have to create the safe space with your subjects and team, built on one of the most important assets that you have – trust. I believe in transparent filmmaking where, as a director, you do not trick your subjects, but are very honest and explain what your aim with the film is. Then people who come on board can really help you achieve that dream, and everyone knows why they are making it. I was always in the smoke sauna, too, reading the air to notice anything and asking to stop filming if someone felt uncomfortable. The way we produced this film was pretty magical – living all together in a South Estonian farm house.

The sisterhood formed throughout the process. Sisterhood doesn't even need to be between women; it doesn't depend on gender. It's about community. It is the connection between humans who support each other and with whom any story can be shared.

What about the practicalities of filming?
It is a very extreme situation for both the people and the technology. Standing in the heat for hours on end and filming or operating a boom is no joke. Cinematographer Ants Tammik and sound recordist Tanel Kadalipp created a cooling system, put ice bags around the camera and had an assistant ready with water for us all the time. The smoke sauna was actually very hot, and some cinematographers told me it just wasn't possible to film in it, or that we'd need to do it at lower temperatures. I was too stubborn to back down, because I felt we could only make this film in the real hot sauna. That heat was important for the subjects. At one point, we wanted to film smoke appearing, and we stayed too long, so we suffered smoke poisoning. We also lost two lenses and a monitor because of the heat and humidity.

Have the protagonists of the film seen it yet?
All the people who shared their stories or who have been recognisably present have seen the film. Ihave included the women who shared their stories in the editing process, showing them various versions and making them feel that the sisterhood lasts longer than just during production.

Kadi Kivilo is a kind of “sauna keeper” and space provider for other women in the film. It warms my heart that she is coming to Sundance. It gives me the feeling that the way we have created this movie means there is not just a sisterhood in the film, but also one around it.

Do you have any ideas about what you want to do next?
I am developing two feature-length fiction scripts. One is set in a near-future dystopia, where the entire world has become a rubbish tip, and the other one is deeply rooted in the mythology and folklore of South Estonia.

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