Something very special is happening. Nestled in a lush green forest in southern Estonia there is a smoke sauna. It is the end of summer and berries are heavy, falling from their stems with a juicy plop. Animals are gorging themselves on this final gust of fecundity to prepare for the winter ahead, but inside the sauna, so long as there is fire, water, and bodies, it will remain warm. Even as the first snows of winter fall and the river ices over, the life force of those inside the sauna continues to thaw and flow.
Anna Hint’s debut feature documentary, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, invites you into this dark, warm, wet space, to have your breath burn in your throat, the salty sting of sweat and cedarwood stain your lips, to be reborn with the women inside the ‘cosmic womb’, as they call it. Ready to join the sisterhood? (Don’t worry, it is a space that occurs outside gender).
When I watched Smoke Sauna Sisterhood I was such a mess, crying, because it was just so beautiful, so I’m very excited to talk to you about it.
Thank you. I’m so happy, I take this message in a good way because it means that it touched [you]. I firmly believe that we should have these safe spaces and the courage to face our mess, because we all have so many depths inside us that we often are not even aware of. That’s something that I realised during [the making of] this film, because it started within my friends, the sisterhood that I knew, and then it grew to be so much bigger. You think you know a person, and then you go into the dark smoke sauna and things come up to the surface that you didn’t realise were there. We all have those depths.
I went to Helsinki a few years ago, and it was my first time being in a proper sauna. It was women-only and obviously, everyone was naked. It was such an amazing experience, seeing all these women just being bodies, without relation to the male gaze. It changed the way I saw myself.
I’m super happy to hear that, because this is what we hoped it would do. I took a lot of time with the cinematographer to really make sure that when we took the camera inside [the sauna] the camera was not a male gaze. One of my degrees is in photography, so I’m very much aware that once you put a camera in a room, it is never objective – there’s no such thing. It’s especially tricky when people think that documentaries are objective. The camera has a gaze; as a viewer, researcher, or filmmaker you have a gaze. The question is, are we aware of that gaze? I come from the smoke sauna tradition so I know that feeling when there is no sexualisation, no objectification when you’re inside the sauna, but the challenging part was how to transfer that through the camera.
So we actually tested it out with my own body. We did a test shoot and then I watched the material with a cinematographer to find the key, and once we found it, I felt secure. The trick is that actually, the cinematographer was a man. In the beginning, I wanted definitely to have a female cinematographer, and we were going to collaborate with a very good cinematographer from Finland. but then my first producer died and it all collapsed. I had to choose someone from Estonia. Between me and Ants Tammik, my coursemate, is this really deep and beautiful connection.
I’m very demanding in my cinematography, and I know he’s very sensitive. So now I have to decide, do I choose someone because they are female, even if I don’t feel that kind of creative connection, or should I choose Ants even though he’s not a woman? I decided to go with the person I felt the most connected with, that I could trust. But of course, another part of this problem is that there should be so many more female cinematographers in Estonia; we still have a long way to go and we should have so much more diversity in our film industry. My producer Marianne [Ostrat] was telling me that there are a lot of female producers in Estonia, but she jokes about it because it’s not that we are so progressive, it’s because it’s so underpaid [laughs].
Hopefully, the film will inspire some more women to get into filmmaking in Estonia, but I think including Ants is really beautiful, because it shows that men can be in those spaces, and they can still be constructive. It’s especially important that cis men, straight men are all part of the conversation we’re having about the patriarchy because it affects all of us.
This is one of the things that I’ve been really addressing when talking about the film. The problem is in the patriarchal mindset, and it goes beyond gender: everyone is suffering because of it, men are suffering because of it. Most of the crew were women or non-binary people, but it was a journey to realise that this patriarchal mindset goes beyond genders. When you look at the film, a lot of the mothers who are referred to also carry this patriarchal mindset. So, it’s about trying to understand the essence of that problem and not just blaming a certain gender.
Now that the film is out, a lot of men have approached me in Estonia. and whenever I’m travelling; it’s not just women. In Estonia, men also go to saunas, and a lot of them have come to me and asked why it is they don’t experience that kind of intimacy and don’t share this kind of emotional vulnerability in the sauna? So I know that there is at least one Smoke Sauna Brotherhood that has now started [laughs].
Exactly – it feels like there’s this buzz of inspiration happening around the film. Could you have foreseen that happening? Were you scared at all? Because of course you deal with a lot of taboo subjects.
Of course I was scared! I want to see a filmmaker who puts their heart into their film and then says they’re not scared. I feel that when you’re not scared, you haven’t put your heart into it. As a filmmaker, as an artist, we have to make ourselves very vulnerable. So it’s always scary; you’re so naked, your soul is so naked. And of course, I also have a huge responsibility for all the women in the film and I didn’t know what would happen, I just knew that the process was special, with a good heart.
From the beginning, I was transparent to the women that I have this one thing that I now carry throughout all my films: that I never persuade anyone. This is something that I learned from my own experience, when I did the short film where it was me and my mum going to a monastery. It was super difficult because my mum was saying yes, but then no. I felt what it means when the person is not sure. After that I decided there would be no persuasion; it has to be a full-body yes.
We also did something very outstanding, actually, now that I’m travelling with the film, and I hear how productions are done. Say I want to do a film with you, you say full body yes, and the production gives you a lease [contract] to sign. This means that everything we film is owned by a production company. I put myself into the position of the woman and knew that if I wanted real vulnerability, it would not come with this kind of lease. So my producer and I made ourselves very vulnerable and decided that we’d only get the leases in post-production: only once the women had seen the cut and said yes to it would they sign. It wasn’t just the people in front of the camera who were vulnerable, because they could have said no. This was the process, and I think that is an important part of why there is such intimacy on camera, because it was based on trust.
When you ask people to be on board like this, the sisterhood doesn’t just start and end while entering the sauna, but continues. And actually, nobody said no. I actually had a different challenge: how to support those women whose story was not in the film, because they became very sad. But during seven years, there was so much that I could not fit it all into one film. Also during the seven years, society started to change; Me Too happened. So some women who in the beginning didn’t want to participate contacted me three years later saying that they wanted to participate; more and more women wanted to participate. And even now on social media, some of the women who didn’t want to show their faces have posted ‘This is my back’ from the stills. I see a change and the readiness to come out.
Because the film was so well perceived they felt courage and they have been now starting to talk about things openly. In the final film, I counted and there were actually 25 women in total. Estonia is so small; we have only about 1.3 million people. Once, we were shooting in the countryside and a woman arrived and asked, ‘Can I come to the sauna with you?’ Something magical started to happen; it took its own flow.
And I’m not surprised, to be honest. If I heard that was happening, I’d want to get in on it.
I would have said yes, absolutely. Let’s go sauna! [laughs].
For four hours! I can’t imagine doing anything better.
About the feedback: it has been really incredible. This one woman – I don’t know how old she is, around 70 – after seeing the film she booked a session with an artistic photographer to take nude pictures of her, because she had hated her body her whole life and she was like, ‘I’m gonna make peace with my body before I die. I will stop that horrible thing I’ve done’. There are women from different cultures also – there’s this Japanese woman who has seen the film six times. She says that in her culture nakedness is such a taboo, so she goes to see the film as a therapy. Every time she sees it, she goes through her own things, like a healing session. I’ve had a lot of feedback from all over the world, and there are a lot of beautiful responses about how women have gone to see it with their mothers and partners, and as I said, lots of feedback also from men and from non-binary people, so there is something that resonates.
For me, it is very interesting when I travel with the film. In Estonia, we are fairly good with physical nakedness. We are used to being naked: families go to the sauna, friends go to the sauna, and nakedness is something very natural, but in Estonia, there is still a way to go with emotional nakedness. But in so many countries, including when I was in the UK for the Sheffield DocFest, I realised that so many people have not been naked with their mothers, fathers, daughters, sons. For me, it is so interesting to see because for us it is so…
And this nakedness, when you think about a smoke sauna also, is not just physical nakedness; you take your clothes off, and you take your mask off. All these constructions that we are used to saying about ourselves, you put all these things away, and you go there into this cosmic womb. Every time [we went to the sauna] my granny used to say that something of you dies and something of you is reborn. It’s a space where you can really deeply connect with yourself, ask those questions, and heal the things that come to the surface. It’s physical dirt that comes to the surface during the process, but also emotional dirt that comes to the surface and the realisation that we have the power inside us to transform, to recreate, to make changes. What it symbolises is the transformative power of water.
A lot of chants are connected with water, and water takes different forms in the cyclic change; we consist so much of water. We have that power, and often inside us it’s frozen, especially when there are deep traumas, and how to warm this frozen part up to let that flow again to let the water flow. It’s like a life force. So all this goes with the smoke sauna tradition.
The film is punctuated by the four seasons, and I wondered why you wanted to end in summer. I saw it as marking a new beginning.
It was very important to me from the start, and before answering this question, I have to explain the kind of spiritual and philosophical context of the smoke sauna. This dates back to pre-Christian times, and my granny directly passed on this heritage. So it is the deep connection with nature; that we are part of nature, we’re not ruling it. Nature is always ruling us, actually. It is an illusion when we think that we are ruling nature. And we have to be respectful: we are part of this wholeness, and everywhere there are spirits and we are part of that big spirit. Their understanding of time is also different; it is not linear in this spiritual context or worldview, but is cyclic. So this is a different approach to life and a different approach to death, and this [smoke sauna tradition] is the deep essence of that.
For me, it was very important to not explain this in the film with words, but instead to put the smoke sauna into the context of the seasons and nature changing. Also, in all those visuals of nature, there is either the smoke sauna or the element of water. Because, like I said, through the element of water there is a transformative power, so I started the film with ice, frozen; things are frozen. With trauma inside us, we can live, but our life force can be frozen, and then through that process in the warm, heat, and darkness in the support of that safe space, the water starts to flow.
I started with cutting the ice and ended with them going into the water. I wanted to end with this feeling that even when there have been really difficult things, we still carry that same life force, that transformative power inside us. The connection with nature is very, very important, and once you realise that you can really change your own mindset. When I really connected with the mindset of my granny I became a much happier person, and I feel the whole world can be much happier when we reconnect again with the wisdom that nature gives us.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is out in UK cinemas from 13th October. Reclaim The Frame presents Smoke Sauna Sisterhood in conversation with director Anna Hints at Glasgow Film Theatre on Friday 13th October. Tickets here.