Ana Hinds came to Athens as a guest of the Athens Film Festival – Premiere Nights, after winning the Director’s Award at Sundance, nominations at the European Academy Awards and the Lux of the European Parliament, after a small documentary from a small country made a huge sensation. Now, her film, The Sisterhood of the Smoking Sauna, will be released in theaters starting Thursday, November 9, by FilmTrade.
Ana herself is full of energy, warm, persuasive, contagious – perhaps this is helped by the smoke sauna culture she learned at a very young age, from her grandmother. The film, “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood”, is a special documentary that unfolds entirely in the darkness of an Estonian sauna, as women, stripped of clothes and of any fear or inhibition, share their stories. How strange, the title cannot be accurately translated into Greek, since the word “fraternity” does not specify the gender of its members. We spoke with Ana Hinds while she was in Athens and she filled us with a lasting optimism. Below is what he told us.
Now that you are traveling with your film to many countries and different continents, I wonder if there are many men in the audience, because your film mostly seems to want to share a truth with the female audience.
Not valid. I travel a lot with the film and I get a great response from men in the audience. Their response has been huge, they’ve been texting me, it’s definitely not a film for women only and that’s what’s amazing. I think it has to do with our prejudices. When I speak to the public, I say that the problem is not people born in a male body, but our patriarchal beliefs and that goes beyond gender. And in the film you see mothers who transfer the male gaze to their daughters. Patriarchal notions are found in both female and male bodies. Many men contact me looking for the same thing, a safe place to share their thoughts. They also see how the female body is depicted in the film and, precisely, realize their own, male gaze. And they suffer from patriarchal notions, this pressure to be very strong, never vulnerable. So my message is to all humanity: let us not be afraid of the uncomfortable, the awkward, our experiences, however embarrassing or painful. Nor should we ostracize people born in a male body. We all need to encourage them to connect with themselves and their weaknesses. In Estonia many men write to me and ask me to make another film, “Smoke Sauna Brotherhood”! But first they have to build this “brotherhood”. Why do they go to the sauna and talk nonsense.
My message is addressed to all humanity: let us not be afraid of the uncomfortable, the embarrassing, our experiences, however embarrassing or painful.”
What does a smoky sauna mean to you?
I come from this culture, I know well the experience of the sauna, this universal matrix that offers security, where every experience can be said with protection, and this experience I wanted to transfer to the cinema. For me, my safe place is indeed the smoke sauna, since I was a little girl. And now, until Christmas I will only go home for four days and two days I will go to the sauna, I need it.
How did you convince the women in the film to strip so completely, literally and figuratively?
First of all, I feel that it is not only important to tell a story, but how we make the films and there are many problems in the process, but also in film schools. There is the position of the director as God, a great artist who can manipulate whoever he wants. I am against it, how the process is can be seen in the result. The big challenge for me was intimacy, how I worked with women. I have been clear from the beginning, this is the level of intimacy we are asking for, I will not try to convince anyone, I am just informing. If she wanted to be a part of the film, we would go ahead. If she wasn’t sure, she was no, I wasn’t trying harder. I didn’t want them to sign their consent in the first place, I knew the women would think about what they said afterwards and I wanted them to be safe, we were shooting for seven years and I thank my producer for that, in the editing I showed it to the women and then they were right to say yes or no and sign. None said no, but I think it’s because I included them in everything. My message is that you can make brave cinema without being a jerk. Then the challenge was at the beginning, as I have a degree in photography and the image is very important to me. And I say, women’s naked bodies, nudity is not sexual at all, how do we avoid the male gaze? Which is not a man thing, it’s a look thing. In Estonia we have a long way to go for inclusivity in cinematography, most cinematographers are men, I had a very difficult choice. And I say, should I choose someone in a woman’s body even if we don’t match artistically, or should I choose based on vision and human connection? And I chose that way, Ants Tamic and I were fellow students, he is an extremely sensitive person. We tried it, soon we found our balance, we shot first with me in front of the camera, I showed it to the women, we also did a trial with them and they all felt beautiful, safe. I hope in the future we will have more options.
What preparation did you do for the shoot? Did you pre-decide the stories the women would tell and their endings?
I didn’t know the stories. It was a rule on the set that we don’t discuss what will be said in the sauna. You spend hours there and the physical dirt comes to the surface, but so does the emotional dirt. The specific stories begat each other, it wasn’t something I was aware of. But I had a vision of a circular structure and the function of water in cleansing, healing. My grandmother used to say that wounds are like ice water and there is so much sometimes that we only have ice inside. But water transforms, it can always start flowing again. So this experience is not only physical warmth, but also a community that surrounds you with warmth and trust. And it makes the water thaw and flow. We don’t say this in words, but I think it shows in our pictures. The stories were a surprise to me too.
I’m not afraid of challenges, I’m not afraid of the uncomfortable, and so, I think, should humanity be.”
For a first feature film, you set yourself quite a few… creative obstacles!
We have a TV show that wanted to come to the smoke sauna to talk to me. I say, OK, let’s go, let’s do our interview there. The camera didn’t hold for 15 seconds and I’m like, wow, how did we do that? But I didn’t choose with this parameter, I make films from instinct, from my heart, when they come to me in my sleep, like visions. It’s not a choice, it’s a necessity, it’s something that has to come out and then you just find solutions. I’m not afraid of challenges, I’m not afraid of the uncomfortable, and so, I think, should humanity be. For me, art, cinema, is living material – not that a film has to be a documentary, let it be horror, fantasy, whatever, whatever, as long as it has life in it, it’s not dead.
Estonia, like Greece, is a small country with little financial provision for cinema – yet you went to Sundance, CPH Docs, co-produced with France and Iceland, you are a success story. How did you face the challenge?
When we first asked for money from the Estonian Film Center, we were turned down. They didn’t understand what we were going to do, a small dark room, something women talking, they told me they had never seen anything like this before. I said to them, why make a movie you’ve seen before? Now, when it premiered at Sundance and I won the Director Award, the Jury talked to me and gave me a review of the film, and they literally praised me for the very same elements that the Film Center had rejected me for. But how many people after this rejection would not have given up trying? Or would they not have followed their advice? Through the whole process I learned how to trust my inner voice, my intuition. I think that the successful course of the film opened the eyes of several people who make decisions about the cinema of my country. Big films can come from small countries, let’s not have an inferiority complex.
Anna Hintz’s The Sisterhood of the Smoking Sauna opens in theaters on Thursday, November 9, via FilmTrade.