Seasons come and go, and every season symbolizes life at different stages being encapsulated within the elements of those seasons. Winter can be harsh with the ice and the cold air, but it also can be comforting when you are around people in warm spaces. The fall always reminds me of new beginnings, maybe because while growing up, the new school year started in the fall. With the crisp leaves and the slight chill, a fire is nice, a kind of fire that lights something within, reminding you of your voice. In the summer when it is hot, the cool water is heaven. It cleanses. And in the spring, there is this manic energy of promise, future and possibility. All of these things are elevated through a group of women, not identified by gender but community. It is the sisterhood of the Smoke Sauna in Southern Estonia.
Anna Hints, a Southern Estonian filmmaker, has created a masterpiece through their seven-year-journey of documenting this sisterhood. It was a gift for them to share with me more about the making of the film, what inspired the film, and the discoveries they made within themself during the process. I asked them, “How do I get to this sauna, do I have to know someone?” They said yes, but if I was serious, they’d get me in. And I am serious! But instead of making plans, we decided to put it out there in the ethos, and if it’s important, it will stay with me. This film has indeed stayed with me, and the same is true of my conversation with Anna. This film is another example of the power of women speaking their truths about trauma and normalizing what it is to be a person in a female body, whether you identify with that gender or not. Anna’s pronouns are they/them, so they look at the experience of being in a female body not as a she/her, but as a shared experience that is universal.
Like the film itself, my conversation with Anna Hints arrived full circle. They started with a story about their grandmother that was similar to an experience Anna felt during the shooting of the film. They were brave to share an experience they shared in the film that was not meant to be in the final cut. I thanked them for their bravery, and I hope this interview along with this film will empower others to do the same. This is a must-see in our cultural climate, when we are in the midst of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, following the #MeToo movement, and when groups of women are coming together to fight the patriarchy in places like Iran, where there is so much violence. I couldn’t help but connect the film with Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking”. The film and the book it’s based on fictionalize true-life events as an act of female imagination. “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” takes it one step further, into reality.
What brought you to this film?
I’m from Southern Estonia and Smoke Sauna is part of our culture. My grandmother is a very wise woman, and at that time, I didn’t think about it, but she passed along a lot to me from her heritage and rituals. I was eleven-years-old when my grandfather died. As per tradition, we kept his body in our farmhouse until burial. During that time, we went to Smoke Sauna, my grandmother, my aunt and myself. There, my Granny told me, and told all of us, she admitted that Grandfather had betrayed her by cheating on her. Only then did she tell us this, never before or after. From this confession, she was able to release the anger, frustration, and sadness that was built inside her and was able to be in this peaceful state. The next day, we would bury my grandfather in peace with joy and forgiveness. I feel the roads that led to this film came from there.
I came to understand that Smoke Sauna was not just a space to relax the body, but really a cleansing of the soul. The other important thing about Smoke Sauna is the community around it. That’s what we call “a sisterhood,” and it goes beyond gender–it is the people around you. There is no story or experience that is too harsh or too embarrassing to be shared. And through the sharing, the healing comes.
But it wasn’t actually until many years later, when I was in America, that I came across a place that influenced my journey to this film. I was involved in some program in Colorado, and during our travels, we ended up in a Native American reservation. I sang songs and they sang songs, and then I found out about their sweat lodge. I went to the sweat lodge there, and I understood that it was like Smoke Sauna.
There is a richness to this tradition in the songs and the saunas. I had to be so far away from home to realize this. In 2015, I was in a monastery in Thailand with my mom. We had a turbulent relationship, and we went to Thailand to find peace. When we were there, we were in silence for 26 days. The idea for the film came during this time. I was so excited by this realization and I approached one of the lady monks. I told her, “I have this idea and I really need to write it down.” And she said, “You are not allowed to write it down, but if this is something you have to do, it’ll stay with you.” And it did.
Can you talk about how these pieces of the film came together?
In the beginning of the film, I was very much involved with the editing process. I’m also credited as one of the editors. I started working with Tushar Prakash, one of our editors, for the first time. It took about one year for us to sift through all of the material. When I would dream, I was kind of editing and then the next day. we would try these things out from my “dream editing”. Qutaiba Barhamji from France assisted us early on in the process, and then I continued with Tushar. After a year together, we felt we were too close to the material, and we brought on Hendrik Mägar for a fresh glance. We watched the footage together and we understood the intuitiveness of it. The structure was there and then we let intuition be our guide. We worked with Hendrik for about 40 more days, and then it all came together.
In Smoke Sauna and my culture, the understanding of time is different. It is not linear, but cyclical in nature. You’re inside the sauna and then you are going out into the seasons. I’m glad that we show all four seasons in the film because it gives you an essence of our roots and culture. It took time to do this film, but I had the most wonderful partners and editors with me.
In the film, you don’t see many faces, and the one you see the most is that of the film’s main subject. Can you talk about how she got involved?
Her name is Kadi Kivilo. She is a close friend and I knew her through University. When I started the film seven years ago, she was not as involved. During that period, her mother died. We talked and I invited her to be a part of the film. She said yes, and naturally, she became a more involved part of the process.
I’d love to hear about the chanting that is in the beginning of the film. It sounds like a chorus of women’s voices, and I love how it’s weaved throughout the film. Is chanting a tradition in Estonia?
Yes, chanting is a tradition in Estonia. We even call ourselves a singing nation. We sing about our freedom from the Soviet Union. It’s called “a singing revolution.” Singing and chanting is very much in us. South Estonia has its own specific language, and “sauna” has its specific chants. As an experimental folk singer, I’m carrying on the tradition. There is actually a lot of my voice in the film. I’m actually a part of a band, it’s a trio. We also worked with Icelandic composer Edvard Egilsson for the film.
There are several layers in this voice, this chant. Like in the Smoke Sauna it’s about finding your voice, then finding them. We are taught as females to be polite or proper, so a lot of voices are suppressed. In the Smoke Sauna space, you can really find your voice. You don’t even need words. For example, there was a pregnant woman in the sauna who asked for a song. I, along with some other women who had given birth, connected to this low sound [demonstrates guttural noise]. And the pregnant lady was like, “You sound so man-like.” We responded that it wasn’t manly at all, it is the part of us that had been suppressed. Often there are so many voices in our head, and we think it is our voice, but who do these voices actually belong to? We want to find our own voices, one that’s unique to ourselves.
I really thought it was interesting showing different parts of the female body, and especially during aspects of the conversation that were about trauma. A specific scene comes to mind when the woman was talking about being raped. It was interesting how the camera was positioned on her. Can you talk about that?
My background is in photography. For me, there are visual ways to tell a story, not just with faces. Through the body, you can tell a story, and the emotion is very important. It was an intuitive process with the cinematographer (Ants Tammik) where we found the language together, and same with the editing. Also, it’s interesting that during the seven years of shooting, the #MeToo movement started. Seven years ago, the women who would never share their stories became empowered by this movement to share and some to show their faces.
It is important to normalize. You can show bodies without sexualizing them. When you go to Smoke Sauna, you leave your clothes behind. Not all of us identify as women, but we share the experience of what it feels like to be in a female body. The body bleeds, for example. We know how it is to be sexualized, and some of us have been raped. We’ve faced the questions of, ‘Should I give birth or not?’ Somehow all of these things all very corporal, and we did not want to sexualize these things. I was letting the camera follow what the women wanted, the women that wanted to show their faces and the women who did not. In the beginning, we weren’t going to show any faces, but people like Kadi wanted to show her face. For her, it was empowering. These experiences with these women show where we are in society in the twenty-first century. There are women who say they cannot show their face when they share and there are others who show their face. It is the woman’s choice.
I’m sure there are people who will feel uncomfortable seeing and being with naked bodies onscreen. But this feeling is okay, because you get to ask yourself, why do I feel this way? Why? The answer is because we have hidden it all away.
I want to read you an excerpt from your director statement: “My film focuses on women who come together in the protective darkness of the smoke sauna, share their deepest secrets and wash off the shame that has accumulated in their bodies. I firmly believe that women need the support of sisterhood to have the courage to face their traumas and regain their power and voice. When there is support from the sisterhood, then no experience is too harsh or too shameful to be shared.”
I agree with you that the more things can be shared may result in them being normalized, while giving strength to those of us who feel alone. What do you hope people see in your film?
I hope when people go to the cinema and see our film that they become part of that sisterhood. For that hour and a half, they can be part of that sisterhood, regardless of gender, but as part of a community. And I hope that people who watch the film can relate and connect to what has been shared and to understand that all emotions and experiences are okay to be shared and listened to. And I hope by people seeing all of the bodies, they can relate to them as well and be able to cry and laugh with these women. They have connected, and they have found a connection within themselves. You cannot erase things that have happened in your past, but you can find a way to speak about them. Being able to speak and not be silenced and to find your voice is empowering.
I have to admit that one of the stories is actually mine. I was also in the sauna with these women. That’s how we filmed it. Then came the moment when I shared. I did not plan on putting it in the film. Initially it was put in because we needed to present to Sundance 20 minutes of footage of the film. I sent some samples to the editor and he picked my story. I said to him, “Do you really need my story? Because there are many like this one.” And he said, “No, it’s important.” So we put it in and my story is still in the film. It’s the rape story. I have never told this story in this way, ever before or after. It just came through me because we had been in the sauna for several hours. People shared, and then it just came. I told the editor that we had a large selection of rape stories to choose from. Unfortunately, there are many stories of rape, so I asked if he could choose another story. But he said, “No, let’s pick this one.”
While making this film, our crew has created a sisterhood in the filming process. Things happen, you know? I’m so happy that this energy and those connections have happened and that this energy comes through in the film.