This Sundance doc lays bare the healing power of vulnerability
Published on January 25, 2023
The first ember of inspiration for Smoke Sauna Sisterhood came when Estonian director and screenwriter Anna Hints was only 11 years old. “I was in a smoke sauna with my granny, aunt, and niece,” she says. “My grandfather had just died, and the body was in the cottage.” Sitting there together in sweat something happened.
“My granny really opened up. She told the story of how my grandfather had cheated on her. She released all the anger and the sadness and made peace with him,” Hints recalls. The next day, they buried him. “That’s when I really understood the power of that space—that it is not just to clean your body, but also your mind.”
As an adult, she wanted to make a documentary that celebrated how profoundly cathartic these sanctuaries can be, in particular, for Estonian women. “For centuries, women have given birth in smoke saunas, they’ve washed the dead, and they’ve healed,” Hints says. That healing is facilitated, in part, by the space itself—dark, cavernous, safe. “In smoke saunas, women come together and really share all the taboos. They wash off the shame and connect and heal.”
A smoke sauna, as the name suggests, is not your traditional hot wooden box. It’s heated by the ventilated smoke of burning logs. That’s also to say, it’s not the most friendly environment to shoot a film. For peace of mind, the crew protected their precious footage in these extreme conditions with Dropbox Backup. “If something happens—if a hard drive fails, if anything fails—you need to lay on your pillow at night knowing your files are safe,” says Icelandic composer Edvard Egilsson, who wrote the soundtrack and has joined Hints in Park City for the premiere.
Smoke Sauna Sisterwood “would not have been possible without Dropbox,” Hints says of her film, which was co-produced between Estonia, Iceland, and France. In addition to Dropbox Backup, the crew used Dropbox to keep large video, music, and text files organized while producing and editing from remote locations. “It’s that feeling you are connected. Even though you are thousands of kilometers away, you’re somehow in the same place, a mutual space,” she says. “And I think that’s also the beauty of making films—to be connected.”
"If something happens, if a hard drive fails, you need to lay on your pillow at night knowing your files are safe."
You had your first transformative experience in a smoke sauna at a young age, but when did the idea for this film really come to you?
Hints: I was in a monastery with my mom. We have a turbulent relationship and decided to go to a Buddhist retreat in Thailand. It was 26 days of silence. You can’t write. You can’t speak. You can’t really do anything. So I was there in silence. And in that silence, I understood the power of voice. The power of actual voice. Like what exactly is the voice? What do I speak out? Do I construct these things that other people tell me or do I speak from my heart? And then I felt that, okay, I'm gonna make a film where there are women and they speak out from their heart. And I’m gonna set it all in the smoke sauna.
How do you distinguish that voice you’re talking about from all the others?
Hints: You really feel it. When the buzz goes really, really high, you just need to go away a bit. So I’lI go to nature. I’ll go to the forest. I’lI go to the smoke sauna, and then I can hear it— there’s like a buzz, then it silences down. What remains is your voice, and that's the voice to listen to. Even if everyone else is saying, no, no, no, you listen to that. And I’ve learned to really trust that intuition as a filmmaker. To trust that feeling when the film is ready or not ready, even when there are many voices around.
How did you and Egilsson decide to work together?
Hints: I really wanted to collaborate with someone from Iceland because I've been in love with Icelandic music and composers for awhile. And then we found Eddie. We just immediately connected. We had a Zoom or Skype or something but the first time we met [in person] we were actually naked [laughs]. We went to a smoke sauna in southern Estonia. We were in that dark space, making music together, and dreaming of releasing the soundtrack. It was like yeah—we’re going to collaborate.
What did you learn as an outsider entering this space?
Egilsson: You know, musically…I’ve gone to university, studied all these theories like classical music and scoring films, and there's a certain process. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood was a completely different thing—something you can’t learn in school. It’s a mutual song of powerful women who come together in that space and leave everything on the table. I feel so lucky just to have been a fly on the wall.
What do you both do when you feel stuck creatively?
Egilsson: Procrastinate? [laughs]. To me, procrastination is not a bad thing. It means your brain is working, it’s processing, and you shouldn't be afraid of that. You're like, I should really be doing something now, but in the back of your mind, in your consciousness, something is just ticking. Maybe, a day later, a week later, a month later—boom. Aha!
Hints: For me, the answer is in the question. What do you do when you are stuck? What do you do to get moving? You move. Let’s say I’m stuck in writing; then I’m not moving on with writing. I stop that, and do something totally different—like dancing or something physical that gets me in my body. Then you go back to the thing, and you have a new perspective. Usually when I’m stuck, it’s because I’m seeing something narrow-mindedly. My perspective is gone. So you have to shake things up, and then come back.
Egilsson: I totally agree with this. Once I was working on a musical composition and felt stuck. I was in the countryside and found this beautiful stick. I had a knife and just decided to make a bow out of it. It took me like a couple of days, but when I finished and came back to the music, there was this feeling, like, oh yeah! It's just this.
"Usually when I’m stuck, it’s because I’m seeing something narrow-mindedly. You have to shake things up—then come back."
What advice do you have for other creatives?
Hints: Be curious. Be open. Be vulnerable. Put out your heart so that you can connect with other hearts. Then the ideas come!
Egilsson: It really is a lot about believing in yourself and just being yourself.
Hints: I think everyone struggles with this. How to believe in yourself. How to believe in your ideas. But I think we have been taught to make, like, this mask. You say, ‘I believe in myself.’ You say ‘I'm strong.’ But I actually think that when you go out and say, ‘I feel really bad,’ something starts to release. You understand that, actually, all of us feel that way. When you really become okay with your vulnerability, these things start to emerge. You find the roots to all those big ideas are inside you. And we can only create authentic, powerful stuff if it comes through our heart.