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Hints Receives Sundance Directing Award for ‘Smoke Sauna Sisterhood’

Cinema | February 20th, 2023

By Greg Carlson

gregcarlson1@gmail.com

In January, Anna Hints brought “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” to the 2023 Sundance Film Festival for the movie’s world premiere. It was the first time Sundance programmed a documentary feature made by a filmmaker from Estonia. By the end of the event, Hints would receive a well-deserved directing award in the festival’s World Cinema Documentary category. Viewers are invited inside the dark and intimate confines of the title location, a quiet and humble cabin tucked between water and trees in the south of the country. From there, the director communicates an astonishing outpouring of vulnerable self-disclosure as the subjects chant and laugh and cry and cleanse, sharing with each other – and the audience – immediately recognizable challenges, sorrows, and triumphs.

Hints does elect to show faces from time to time, but perfects a technique in which the women speak simultaneously as individuals and as a unified voice. The various rituals associated with the sauna, including the use of leaves and plants as floggers to stimulate circulation, the rubbing of salt on the skin, and the multiple hot/cold cycles of quick dips in the water – including through holes cut in the ice during wintertime – familiarize the audience with a practice that the credits reveal is recognized on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. No history, context, or backstory gets in the way of the director’s position as a nearly invisible observer. We go right to the sauna. By the end of the film, it has been an honor to spend time in this company.

Despite the intensity of several stories, “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is unhurried. The movie fully commits to the experience of the sauna and the filmmakers do a superb job conveying a strong sense of being in that space. Hints began work on the project eight years ago and the film’s scenes unfold over the course of roughly nine months of time. There is certainly a careful consideration of rhythm and pace and of the faster and slower passages that Hints arranges with thoughtfulness and precision.

As the name of the movie indicates, Hints focuses on the camaraderie of women, but all can appreciate the fellowship. Like so many of the best movies, “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” captures the universal in the specific. We hear stories about relationships that come apart and come together. We recognize the complexities of parent-child bonds. We bear witness to absolutely harrowing accounts of sexual assault and rape. Hints often aligns the viewer with the film’s subjects by holding on the faces of those in reaction shots as opposed to close-ups of the storytellers. This is a film that recognizes the importance of listening.

At the post-premiere Q & A, director of photography Ants Tammik and Hints spoke briefly about the physical challenges of capturing the desired imagery, a gorgeously-lit, often abstract cascade of fast-falloff chiaroscuro that sees the entire range of body shapes and types with the eyes of a master painter. Tammik, who lost at least one expensive lens to the harsh conditions, conveys the almost tactile representation of heat as well as any cinematographer since Ernest Dickerson on “Do the Right Thing.” During the same discussion, Hints admitted to blacking out from the high temperature in the sauna. The sacrifices were worth it.

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