Anna Hints’ “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is the Estonian entry in the Oscars Best International Feature Film race, and the only documentary among Estonia’s 21 submissions in the category. The film takes place in a “smoke sauna,” a rural type of sauna that is a central part of the rural culture in areas of Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The film pays attention to the rituals of the smoke sauna, which takes hours to heat up before it’s ready, but its focus is on the stories that are told inside its walls, where women feel free to unburden themselves and speak frankly about matters both benign and dark.
Hints is a first-time director who came to filmmaking after a troubled childhood. Her journey with “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” began at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2023, where she won the directing award in the World Cinema Documentary category. Since then, the film has won awards at the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Cinefest Sudbury International Film Festival. On December 9 it was named the best European documentary of 2023 at the European Film Awards, and three days later it was nominated for documentary production by the Producers Guild of America.
And wildest of all, “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is one of the five nominees for the European Film Academy’s LUX Audience Award, a special prize that finds the nominees subtitled in all 24 EU languages and screened across Europe. One of the other nominees, to Hints’ astonishment, is “Fallen Leaves” by Aki Kaurismäki, the Finnish director who inspired her to make films. “I’m so happy that that even though these dreams so seemed impossible and my life seemed unbearable, I decided to stay on this path,” Hints said in a conversation with TheWrap.
What made you want to be a filmmaker?
I was a teenager and I was really broken. I had this huge social phobia, so I didn’t go out and I missed schools for months. And only thing I did was watch films. Some satellite programs had a really amazing collection from all of film history, and then they started to bring contemporary films into Estonia. So I was watching those films, and a small voice was starting to say, “Wow, I also want to make films.” But it seemed unbelievable because I was so broken. I sensed that it’s not just whatever talent you have or what stories you want to tell – it’s also working with people. And how could I work when I’m so broken myself?
I was suicidal, contemplating whether to live or not. But then I remember watching some Kaurismäki films and I so related to those characters – I think in English you call them underdogs or outcasts. I felt for them and they gave me so much hope. And I decided to live and to go to this journey of healing myself. I studied literature and folklore and I did contemporary art and I studied photography because I wanted to understand visual thinking. And then I gave birth to a daughter when I was 28. I remember it was spring time, and I had a dream about being a filmmaker. When I don’t know what to do, I imagine that I’m going to die and I ask myself, “Would I regret if I didn’t go to film school, if I didn’t pursue that dream?” And I thought, yes, I will regret it. So then, even though I still had a lot of fears and insecurities, I decided to go to film school.
I understand the seeds for this film were planted by your grandmother when you were only 11.
Yes. It was my southern granny who introduced me to the smoke sauna culture. When I was 11, I was initiated into the sisterhood, in a way. My grandfather had died, and before his funeral, we went to smoke sauna, because this is what you do before important events. And it was there where granny revealed that grandfather had betrayed her and lived with another woman for several years after the war when she had four kids. She released all the emotions connected with that: frustration and anger and hurt and shame. I remember being in the dark space, all these female bodies around me, just listening and embracing her.
And once we went out and put our clothes on, I felt that granny had made peace with grandfather. It was a cathartic, visceral experience. It gave me this understanding of smoke sauna as a safe space on this earth where absolutely all your experiences and emotions can be shared without judgment.
How did that turn into a concrete idea for the film?
That was born when I was in a monastery with my mom in 2015. It was this kind of silent retreat for 26 days. It was very interesting, because I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read. I was in that silence. And then I started to notice that in that silence, there are actually a lot of voices. These voices were telling me several things—but where was my voice? When I became more sensitive, I started to hear silenced voices. And that made me think of my experience from smoke sauna culture as a safe space for voices of the sisterhood.
That came together as a vision for a film. And then I was like, wow, I want to write it down. But I couldn’t write. So the next day, I went to see this lady monk. When you had something important that you couldn’t bear anymore, you could go talk to her. So I went to her and I was like, “I really need to write down this idea. I feel so strong, and I’m worried that maybe it will go away.” And she was like, “No, because you came here in dedication to be silent. If it is important, it’ll stay with you.” And it did.
If the idea of smoke sauna is that it’s a safe space, how do you as a filmmaker take cameras into that space without making it less safe?
I’ve thought about that. In a way, I feel it was possible to make this film because I’m from that sisterhood. I think it would not have been possible with anyone else. There was such trust between me and the women. And also, I felt that for everyone who agreed to be in the film, it was not so much for us but to share it and invite others to see it, because the world needs it.
I started with the sisterhood that I know, and I was very open from the start about what level of intimacy I was looking for. And then I had a rule for myself that I will not persuade anyone. When I sensed that there was hesitation, it was no.
And before filming at all, I took time to figure out the visual language. Smoke sauna is nothing sexual, but these are naked female bodies, and I need to make sure they’re not objectified or sexualized. I had to find that visual key, so I tested it with a cinematographer on my own body. And when I felt safe, I showed it to the women and we followed their wishes. If they didn’t want to show their face, we didn’t.
One of the most devastating stories is from a woman whose face we don’t see, who talks about being raped as a teenager while hitchhiking. I didn’t know until after I saw the film, but that was you. Was it difficult to put your own story in there?
It was an organic thing that happened in the smoke sauna. Several stories like that started to come up from women, and I just couldn’t be silent. I had never told the story like that, never before and never after. It just flew out of me. It was this combination of the smoke sauna itself and the sisterhood and the other stories so that it came from deep, deep within. It was a very powerful experience.
We applied for Sundance Institute money and had to put together a 20-minute excerpt. I worked with an editor, gave him some materials and let him pick what resonated strongly. He picked that story and didn’t realize it was my story, and I tried giving him arguments to pick other stories. And he was like, “No, this is so strong.” So I trusted him, and we sent that cut to Sundance and got money. And we also got feedback, and they said, “Please keep that story.”
For me, it was validating, in a way. I remember reading the feedback and being in tears. And then I actually went to the police and reported it. There was this senior officer, and after going through so many psychologists and healing processes, I was still kind of like, “I don’t know. Was it rape, really? I was wearing a flower in my hair, and maybe it was too red…” And she looked into my eyes and was like, “Anna, you could have been drunk. You could have been naked. This was rape. No one has the right to abuse you like this.” I just burst into tears, and it was very important part of this healing process that the film brought me.
You said that smoke sauna helped your grandmother heal and forgive your grandfather. Has the process of documenting smoke sauna changed you?
Definitely. Definitely. It has in so many ways, on so many different levels. First of all, you understand that you’re not alone. Often when we have traumas, we suppress them and think that we are alone. But then you really understand that you’re not alone and you share them. And even in the darkest winter, the coldest winter, we should never forget that this frozen trauma inside us has the power to flow again like water.
I’ve experienced that in my life. I felt a lot of shame about my own experience. And I could wash that shame off and accept my vulnerability, my imperfections. Despite the horrors and the sadness and experiences that have been so painful and where people have done wrong to me or I have done wrong to others, that there is possibility to connect with that light and still believe and still love and still trust. I think this is what it has given me.
A version of this story first appeared in the International Feature Film issue of TheWrap’s Awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.