Anna Hints on the Sacred Spaces of Shared Experience in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Documentarian and musician Anna Hints’s Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a journey into the psyche of women as they experience a unique cleansing and renewal in an Estonian Sauna. Nadine Whitney was given the opportunity to speak to Anna about her closely observed and sacred work ahead of the films launch at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is screening at MIFF on the following dates: August 04, 11, 18, 20.Tickets are available here.

Make sure to also read Nadine’s review of the film here.

Nadine Whitney:  Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a particularly intimate documentary. Can you tell me a little about the process of filming and allowing the cameras to exist in the background, so the stories come to the foreground?

Anna Hints: Creating an intimate atmosphere was crucial for capturing the raw and vulnerable stories shared by the women inside the smoke sauna. Our crew took an unobtrusive approach, allowing the cameras to exist in the background, so the women felt comfortable expressing themselves freely. The smoke sauna’s safe and sacred space empowered them to open up without fear of judgment or shame, and this approach allowed the stories to emerge organically and authentically.

For me and cinematographer was really important that there is no sexualising of female bodies and we did tests with ourselves to find the key to shoot. Nakedness for smoke sauna is something very natural and is nothing sexual, so I tested the glance of camera on my own body first to make sure there was no male gaze. I was also very transparent with the women from the start on what level of intimacy and honesty I am looking for. I also believe that it is important not to persuade anyone – only those who felt the deep need to be part of the film were in. This is a motto I follow. Also, I believe that you can only create vulnerability once you as director allow yourself to be vulnerable. We did it in a way were women signed the leases only after seeing the edit, I included them in edit showing cuts and respecting their voice. It is very vulnerable for production because they had their right to say no too. But I believe this was the only way for this kind of trust to happen that women gifted to me and the production. The whole process of filming was very intimate and healing for all of us. 

NW: People will be fascinated to find out about Estonian smoke saunas, especially their UNESCO listing as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity places. Can you tell me a bit about the culture around them?

AH: Inspired by my roots in the South-East Estonian culture of Võromaa and Setomaa, and the profound teachings of my Võro granny, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a tribute to the transformative power of the smoke sauna tradition. It is an ode to the sacred space where women have given birth, washed the dead, and healed for generations. 

South-East Estonian smoke saunas hold immense cultural importance as they are part of UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Rooted in deep connections with nature, smoke saunas are seen as living beings where important life events like giving birth, washing the dead and healing body and soul have taken place for centuries. In smoke sauna you can wash off dirt not just from your body but also from your soul. The rituals in smoke saunas are sacred, with a strong emphasis on chants and words, which have profound spiritual significance in Estonian culture. We believe in the power of words and through them creating the world. Smoke saunas act as primordial wombs, allowing individuals to shed their emotional burdens and be reborn. You go there naked, putting aside different masks and concepts you might have about yourself and meet others naked in the dark safe space. Nakedness means honesty and authenticity in smoke sauna.

NW: Visually the film is beautiful. You made choices to represent the real but also had sections where you decided to represent certain women as layered smoke. What was behind those decisions?

AH: To understand smoke sauna and the cultural heritage around it, is important to mention that the understanding of time is also different in smoke sauna – time is not linear but cyclic like in nature. During late autumn we have spirits time when there is time where dead ancestors come to visit the alive. There are also special smoke saunas in the spirit time. In the layered smoke there appears the old woman who represents to me the voices of my foremothers in the form of spirit. The old lady in film is also herself a spirit now. She passed away three years ago and then appeared in my dream in the form of smoke, so I found that way of representing her and all other foremothers, including my own granny from the South who passed on the heritage but died almost eighteen years ago. 

NW: How long were you and your crew embedded in the sauna? The documentary shows more than one season passing.

AH: The filmmaking process spanned seven years, with various shooting periods depending on the availability of participants and the necessary seasons to capture the smoke sauna’s essence. By filming over time, we were able to showcase the cyclical nature of the smoke sauna’s healing process, as well as the passing of seasons that mirrored personal transformations and also represent the broader philosophy where smoke sauna belongs to – the connection with nature and its cyclic understanding of time. For me the water was very important element to show – water that takes different forms and is carrier of life and power to transform. Water is connected very much with smoke sauna rituals. 

NW:  The soundtrack is incredible. Mixing folk songs and original music you performed. Can you tell me about your original music?

AH: The soundtrack was a significant aspect of the film’s emotional resonance. I incorporated a mix of folk songs and original music, a lot of which I sang myself. The original music was carefully composed to complement the film’s themes and create an immersive and emotional experience for the audience. We had a collaboration between my band EETER (me, Marja-Liisa Plats and Ann Reimann – all female trio with roots in South-East Estonia) and Icelandic composer Edvard Egilsson. The elements in composing were naturally coming from the elements of smoke sauna. Very important were the voices of female as we felt it works well with the sisterhood concept. 

NW: The chiaroscuro of the sauna is impeccable. The way you shot the women’s bodies is honest and adds to the honesty of their stories. Can you tell me about your process when it comes to filming the female form?

AH: The form and creative process of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood were driven by intuition and trust. I approached filmmaking as an intuitive process, allowing stories to emerge organically during the smoke sauna sessions, without pre-scripted narratives. This approach allowed for genuine and unfiltered emotions to surface, creating a collective narrative of what it means to be born into a female body, transcending cultural boundaries and resonating with universal experiences. 

The decision to focus the camera on the women’s bodies rather than their faces was intentional, allowing the viewers to connect with the shared humanity and vulnerability, transcending the barriers of individual identities. This choice echoes the dark, safe, and transformative nature of the smoke sauna itself, where bodies become memory landscapes, and collective experiences are embraced.

It was essential to capture the women’s bodies as memory landscapes, reflecting the healing journey and empowering experience of the smoke sauna. Creating a comfortable and supportive environment allowed the women to express their vulnerability without inhibition. When filming the female form, I aimed to portray it honestly and respectfully, without objectification or the male gaze.

Technically, filming inside a real heated smoke sauna was a challenging endeavour, but one that was crucial to capturing the genuine atmosphere. The decision to endure the physical hardships allowed us to delve deep into the transformative power of the smoke sauna. Average temperature inside smoke sauna was 80 degrees Celsius. 

NW: Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is about the healing nature of the sauna but also about community. Do you feel that modern society lacks spaces that allow people the freedom to tell their truths without judgement?

AH: I have travelled a lot with the film and realise how deep is the need for these kinds of spaces, and how much people are lacking safe spaces. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood highlights the importance of safe spaces that foster vulnerability and authenticity. Smoke sauna is a space to share everything, no experience is too shameful or painful – all experiences have their birth right and once we validate our experiences, we regain our strength and experience huge healing power.

When these kinds of safe spaces are lacking in society then it leads to individuals feeling judged or silenced. By showcasing the healing power of the smoke sauna and the sisterhood it nurtures, the film advocates for creating more spaces where people can share their truths without judgment. Nowadays thanks to social media people feel the pressure to look certain way or be certain way, so being naked and sweaty, without physical and metaphorical clothes on, raw in body and soul is something really refreshing and healing for most of the audiences. Also, the experience of sisterhood that supports is so important, many have felt competition between women in their lives or judgment by other women, but here in the film they experience the sisterhood that nurtures and nourishes and supports. This is what we all need, do we realize that or not. We long for connection, we want to be heard, we want to be seen. 

NW: Many of the women in the film have been damaged by patriarchy: whether it be abuse or even the social expectation that they hate the bodies they are born into. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a small space that tells large truths. How important was it for you to address patriarchal abuse?

AH: Addressing patriarchal abuse was a crucial aspect of the film. Many women in the documentary have faced various forms of abuse and societal expectations that perpetuate harm. Sad reality is that when you go to sauna with women, all of them have experienced some kind of abuse, many have experienced rape, most of women dislike their bodies. The problem is the patriarchal mindset and that goes beyond genders and creates suffering to all. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood serves as a platform to bring these truths to light and challenge patriarchal mindsets.  

In the film there are several mothers who pass the damaging mindset on to themselves and their daughters. Men suffer the same in the patriarchal mindset that pushes them to be strong and not vulnerable. For me the true strength lies in the courage to be vulnerable and a way for that is to start really opening up and sharing experiences. When we feel that we are not alone, there are others who share similar damages, healing can start in deep level. 

NW: The smoke sauna is a place of healing, a small place where the divine feminine can emerge. Can you tell me a little about the rituals that occur in the sauna?

AH: Smoke sauna is a sacred space where women can cleanse not just their bodies but also their souls. Smoke saunas serve as confessional spaces, providing an opportunity to shed emotional burdens and find renewal. One healing smoke sauna session can take hours, there are special chants and words to heal. Whisking ritual is important part of sauna rituals – special herbs included for different rituals, salt is used also. In smoke sauna you connect with your body and soul, with your voice in physical and emotional sense. When you enter smoke sauna you treat the dark wooden building without chimney as a living being and once you leave smoke sauna, you always thank the spirit of smoke sauna and those who heated the sauna, carried the water, made the whisks, you thank fire, water, wood, Mother Earth, Father Sky. Depending on Moon you either can pray for things to leave you or things to come to you. For me smoke sauna is a primordial cosmic womb that can take all our shame, fears and pain, heal through acceptance and love and make us feel connected again to ourselves, to nature, to others. Being in heat follows with being outside to breath and go to water. Then again into heat. This cycle really starts to affect so that deeper and deeper layers of dirt from body but also from soul start to emerge to the surface. Safe darkness awakens the subconscious and sisterhood around carries acceptance and feeling of being united, connected. 

NW: Why do you think audiences should see Smoke Sauna Sisterhood? What would you like them to experience and understand? 

AH: I believe audiences should see the film to witness the power of vulnerability, healing, and feminine solidarity. By experiencing the intimate stories shared inside the smoke sauna, viewers can gain a deeper understanding of the resilience and strength found in women’s collective voices. I hope the film inspires empathy, fosters dialogue about societal challenges, and encourages individuals to embrace their own truths and experiences. The impact of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood around the world has been profound. Viewers have connected emotionally with the stories, finding solidarity and empowerment in the shared experiences of these brave women. The film has become a catalyst for dialogue and healing, encouraging a broader conversation about the need for safe spaces and compassion in society. Through this film, I hope to encourage a collective journey towards vulnerability and self-acceptance, where all voices are heard and valued, and where healing and empowerment flourish within the embrace of sisterhood.

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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