The UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage includes not only Finnish sauna culture, but also the smoke sauna tradition of Võromaa, Estonia. Having enjoyed the smoke sauna since childhood, director Anna Hints embarked on a seven-year-process to bring this ancient and intimate tradition with its joys and sorrows to the big screen.
In the comforting warmth of the dimly lit smoke sauna hosted by Kadi Kivilo, women of different generations come together, opening up about their relationships with their bodies and mothers, pressures of patriarchy and suffocating traumas. Sweat glistens on skin, meat is being smoked, secrets are revealed, shame beaten into submission with birch twigs and washed away. Bodies and souls are so bare that the sight of nail polish may startle the viewer. When it comes to illumination and temperature, near-impossible circumstances for filmmaking have somehow been turned into a magical dance of smoke and light.
The experience is cathartic for both those in the sauna and the audience, who can almost smell the sooty timber and lush forest pond, mentally verbalizing that which has hitherto been unspoken. The first Estonian feature documentary to be selected in competition at Sundance, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood promptly brought Hints the Directing Award in the World Cinema category. The multi-talented Hints can also be heard on the ritualistically atmospheric soundtrack as part of her experimental folk trio, Eeter.
Born in Tartu, Estonia, screenwriter-director-composer ANNA HINTS (b. 1982) studied film directing at the Baltic Film, Media and Arts School in Tallinn, but also has prior degrees in folklore, literature and photography. She already received acclaim from her early short films: Ice (2017) was screened at over 90 festivals around the world, bringing home 14 awards. More recent and likewise widely screened short documentary For Tomorrow Paradise Arrives (2021) dealt with dumpster diving as means of battling food waste. Her musical merits include Eeter’s score to the Estonian nature documentary Wind Sculpted Land (2018) that beat box office records in Estonia for documentaries.