In the smoky sauna, there is no chimney. As the wood burns, smoke fills the room. After the sauna reaches the desired temperature, the fire is extinguished, but thanks to the construction, the room retains the heat. The time it takes for all this process often takes a whole day.
In Finland and Estonia, smoking saunas have an almost sacred character. They have also been declared part of the world cultural heritage by UNESCO – but why?
There women used to give birth, heal, confess, for centuries. Together with psalms, and away from the gaze of men, this has been a place throughout time where something purely physical met the divine, the transcendent.
It is there that Anna Hinds came up with the idea for a film, for a documentary unlike any other you’ve seen, and which eventually won a directing award at the legendary Sundance festival. In this smoky sauna, women (and only them) can once again confess and through this process, in a sense, be healed.
THE Hinch he recorded many stories, in many different ways, but always emphasizing physicality. Bodies, voices, faces and stories become one, in a cinematic sacred sauna where the chants this time come from the big screen. But how did the young director manage to extract from so many different women, their personal – until then even unacknowledged – stories?
Everything starts with trust, with the belief in a cinema as an absolute safe space, where everyone works together harmoniously and with absolute trust, and where no oppressive “genius” has a place. And going even further back, it all starts with her own relationship with the smoky sauna, and that time she learned a shocking truth for her grandfather who had just died – and the almost month in a monastery that helped her hear (as if in a vision) her inner voice, that guided her with safety and devotion, in this daring project.
Anna Hinds was a guest at Premiere Nights in Athens in September ’23, and we had the chance to talk to her about the smoky sauna and safe spaces, as her film, The Sisterhood of the Smoky Sauna, is now in Greek cinemas – and it’s one of the best of the year.
Where did the idea for the film come from? There was a spirituality to this performance.
I come from this sauna culture, it’s something you find all over Estonia and it’s also under UNESCO protection as a part of Estonian indigenous culture. In local traditions and customs there are also songs or even hymns that say – all these are still alive there.
My grandmother passed me this experience, she was a therapist. When I was 11 and my grandfather had just died, and we had his body at home, we went to a smoky sauna before the funeral, because that’s what you do the day before. So I went with my grandmother, who revealed that grandfather had betrayed her and was living with another woman. And then he released all the emotion associated with this betrayal – anger, irritation, pain, all the wounds. So I felt that grandma had made peace with grandpa, and the next day we buried him in peace.
She knew it, but then she shared it with you?
Correctly. And somehow that feeling I felt then spoke to my bones and soul. That somewhere on this earth there is a safe space where all experiences and feelings can be shared and heard without judgment.
And it’s a lesson I’ve learned throughout my life: To not be afraid to face something uncomfortable, to not be afraid of shame or pain. When you shed light on something, you don’t suppress it. Because when you repress it, it becomes a monster. When you release it, there is a healing power to it. That’s where the film comes from, I wanted to share in a way my own experiences, and how I too am part of such a sisterhood of women.
In 2015 I went to a monastery with my mother where I remained silent for 26 days. And in the silence, came the vision of this film. It’s interesting because through the silence, you begin to hear the voices inside you. But you say, what is mine? Is it really mine? And I wanted to enter a smoky sauna with the aim of sharing my own experience but also giving space to women’s experiences.
This translates 100% into the film as we see voices, stories and bodies sort of become one in a way. As if it doesn’t matter where they come from, which voice is which.
Exactly! Both as a director and as a person, dreams are a very important part of reality and when something comes to me in a dream or as a vision, then I know it is something possible. And when he continues to visit there, I decide that yes, this must be done, he must go out into the world.
The way it’s shot made me think there’s no one right way to do this process. Some people stare, others want to hide, there is no one way to share a story. So sometimes we see a face while it is talking, other times we see a point of the body.
I studied photography. Other directors work with people and don’t think so much about visual language. I think a lot like this, for me directing is the visual language we will follow.
The challenge here was when I have so many naked female bodies, how do I make sure they are shot not with a male gaze, not as objects, not with a sexualized gaze. Because the smoky sauna is not a sexual place at all.
And when I say male gaze, I want to emphasize that it is something that goes beyond gender. The male gaze is just like patriarchy. And in the film itself you can hear stories about mothers who transmitted the male gaze. It’s a certain way of looking at the world.
So for me it was important to find that tone. So I tested it on my own body first and then showed it to women. The process is very important, it’s not only if you have a story or a theme, but how you make the film. And there are many problems for me in how films are discussed in schools based on the idea that there is a Great Director in the place of a god, who has the right to harass and oppress.
The idea that I don’t have to give an account to anyone, and that everyone will sacrifice everything for my art.
Yes exactly, and I am very much against it. So we come to the process and how we shot the film, how we approached the intimacy. I had a rule that I wouldn’t take anything from anyone by force. I will come and say openly that this is what I am looking for and only when you say yes, I want to be part of the project, then we will continue. If I feel any doubt, then no.
Of course, I started the film 7 years ago. In the meantime, a lot has changed in society, we had me_too , the world is different now. And some of the women contacted me and said yes, now they want to be part of the film.
Second, to be able to have truly vulnerable narratives, for women to open up from within, I felt that we as a production had to be vulnerable as well. And together with the producer we took a huge risk. Because you know that traditionally the production gives you a paper to sign from the beginning and this means that the material belongs to the production company. I was against it, I said no. Will you be in the smoky sauna not knowing how what you share will come across? It will be like taking away their voice.
But we had a lot of confidence in them and in what we were doing, so in post-production I showed them the final edit and then they had the right to say yes or no, and then they signed. Huge risk.
And terribly idealistic.
But it worked! I mean it’s possible, yes, it’s possible to create something brave and bold and intimate, based on trust. I never imposed my voice on them, I included them in the process. And you know, not a single one said no.
Did you know in advance what stories would be shared, what you would hear?
We had a rule that I didn’t know what the stories were going to be. On set we didn’t talk about what was going to happen in the sauna, so every time we went in there it was like walking into the unknown.
You had no idea, but you generally knew what you were looking for?
I knew for example that a woman had breast cancer in her life but I didn’t know the details and of course I didn’t know if she would decide to tell. There was always something new emerging and it required us to be very ready when these stories surfaced. They were not repeated, we had to be prepared for how to turn around in the hot sauna. Both physically and mentally to be there, but also with ice around the camera, technical things that is.
But also visually. I followed, let’s say, which women wanted to show their faces and which ones didn’t. I generally followed as the women wanted. This is what I only knew beforehand.
So there are practical reasons behind the aesthetic approach of the film, but also artistic intent at the same time, was there a balance?
We can have a very powerful artistic effect by including other people’s choices. In art school I learned to never be afraid of challenges. Someone says no, this is how I want it to be, then it’s your job to find an interesting artistic way – not to sneakily treat your subject matter of course, but to include that direction and find a path through it.
Socrates Baltagiannis / AIFF 2023
But it’s always terribly interesting what each artist does with the given limitations.
At the beginning when we asked for money we were not approved and the committee then said various things, that the project does not make sense, that it is a small dark space, that it only concerns women and no one cares. All these. Or that they have never seen such a film. And that seemed silly to me – why make a film you’ve already seen?
When I won the directing award this year at Sundance, the committee came to congratulate me, for bold decisions etc etc, and they basically listed the exact same points that the first committee had listed as negatives, as a basis for denying funding!
So as a director for me the journey is how I come to trust the voice inside me. It is very important, and you need to know if it is your voice. It’s something very physical You just feel it!
And now, when I tell someone an idea and they say, wait, I’ve never seen a film like that before, it doesn’t make sense, I always take that as a compliment. That’s a good thing, I’ll follow it. There is something there.
“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is released in theaters by Filmtrade. The interview took place as part of Premiere Nights.