We interview Smoke Sauna Sisterhood director Anna Hints about her filmmaking career and the emotional process of having a film premiere at Sundance.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a quietly engrossing and beautiful documentary. Directed by Anna Hints in her feature documentary debut, the film showcases multiple real-life experiences from a group of women who come together in the darkness of a smoke sauna to tell their stories and the challenges they’ve faced. From the struggles that come with puberty to their experiences with sexual abuse, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is an absorbing and challenging piece of filmmaking that offers both a comforting warmth and a certain frustration as it navigates through the feminine experience.
In conjunction with the film’s UK theatrical release on October 6th, We sat down with Anna Hints to learn more about her beginnings in film, the process of directing Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, and what’s next for her career in filmmaking. Read the interview!
Anna Hints on her History in Filmmaking
What were your beginnings as a filmmaker?
Anna Hints: I’m happy to talk about my beginnings because we’re often surrounded by the cult of success and how we think that it comes easily to someone, but in my case, it doesn’t. I was a teenager and I was contemplating whether to live or not. I had social anxiety and didn’t leave my room. During that time, I watched films that deeply moved me and began to hear this voice inside me that made me want to be a filmmaker. I also felt that I needed to go on a journey first to heal myself.
Films and this voice inside me to be a filmmaker helped me go through that difficult process. I travelled the world, studied photography, and gave birth to an amazing daughter. I pursued filmmaking at 28 and since then it’s been a continuous journey. I feel the best thing you can do when making films is to dive into understanding the world around us. A really important part of my journey has been to understand what kind of filmmaker I am. It’s easy to lose yourself when you study the industry and somebody tells you how films should be.
An important part of the process of making Smoke Sauna Sisterhood was being able to trust my voice. For example, when I first asked for funding to make the film, I was rejected, The film fund pointed out several things that didn’t make sense to them. One point that confused me was that they hadn’t seen this kind of film before and that made me ask why I should be making things they’ve already seen. When Smoke Sauna Sisterhood premiered at Sundance and I won the Best Director award, the committee pointed out several things they loved about the film and they were the same points that were made when it was rejected. For me, that was a cathartic moment. It showed me how important it was as a director to trust my inner voice.
The Beginnings of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
How did Smoke Sauna Sisterhood originate?
Anna Hints: It started from my roots. I come from the culture of the smoke sauna which my grandmother introduced me to. In a way, the film was born subconsciously when I was 11. My grandfather had passed. It was one day before the funeral and I went to the smoke sauna with my grandmother, my aunt and my niece. My grandmother revealed for the first time that my grandfather had lived for several years with another woman. She released all the emotions connected with that event. The hurt, the pain, the anger. I was there in the darkness with these women around me, and listening to their emotions be released. Once we left the sauna, I felt that my grandmother had made peace with my grandfather and we could bury him in peace. I felt in my soul that the sauna was a safe space for your emotions to be heard. It gave me the courage to never be afraid to embrace those uncomfortable feelings.
The idea to make the film came to me in 2015. I was in a Buddhist monastery with my mom in Thailand, where I practised Vipassana meditation for 26 days. This meant that I was not speaking or writing. I had to be silent. In this silence, I started to hear many voices inside me which came together with my experiences in the sauna. I suddenly had this vision of the film and felt that I needed to write it down.
I went to this lady monk whom you could go and talk to for urgent matters. I told them that I had this vision come to me in a dream and I asked for permission to write it down which was rejected. They told me that if it was important, the vision would stay with me and throughout the entire retreat, it did. This was another lesson for me to not be afraid of ideas going away. If an idea comes from deep within, it will stay with you. When I get the feeling that I need to write this idea down, I choose not to. Instead, I’m observing the idea to see if it stays with me. It’s a really important process.
The Production And Premiere of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
What was the filmmaking process of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood like?
Anna Hints: Before diving into the filmmaking process for Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, I took the time to understand that I was responsible for the stories that emerged from the smoke sauna and realised the weight of what happens in that environment. In film school, you’re taught that you’re the artist and only you have the right to your material, and I’m against that. I always think that if I was one of the women in the film, I would be very self-conscious about what I say. I had to make myself and the crew vulnerable with these women in the film.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood was born because it started with the sisterhood that I’m also a part of, and then it grew into something bigger. I had women contact me whom I didn’t know before that wanted to be part of the process. I had one woman drive to where I was living and ask to be part of the film. We went to the smoke sauna together and placed a lot of trust in each other to let the organic material of our lives guide us through the production.
What was the emotional process when the film finally premiered at Sundance?
A.H: It’s a vulnerable position to be in at a premiere. You’re naked as an artist in that moment. You don’t know how the world will take it. You have to be vulnerable as an artist yourself and when you put your heart into your work, there are risks. You’re in a creative forest where you follow your voice and then you end up at the premiere of the thing you’ve made. There are no guarantees of how it’ll be received and it’s super scary how you have to put your heart out. I’ve realised though that I have to feel this way. If I felt secure as a filmmaker, that would be a cause of concern for me. I need to feel vulnerable.
When I received the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award, I realised that I had to trust my own voice. I thought back to my teenage years when I was debating the choice of life or death and I feel so grateful to myself for choosing life. When I’ve travelled the world and come across people who still dream of being filmmakers, it’s made me realise how it’s such a blessing when we still have those possibilities to make films and meet with the audiences who watch what we make.
I try not to take things for granted. I think about my Grandmother and how she was an amazing storyteller. She could’ve been an amazing film director, but she never had that chance. There are so many people in my family history who have never had the chance to pursue their talents. Now when I have that chance to make films, I feel that they are making films through me. All these emotions have come together and I’m still processing it.
Anna Hints on her Future as a Filmmaker
What are some of your plans for the future as a filmmaker?
Anna Hints: I have several projects in different states of development. I feel the ideas I have are like trees. Is the tree dying? Is it living? With all the things I’ve experienced in my life, there’s been a time when I’ve asked those same questions but now, I feel like I have the answers. I have different ideas coming to me and I try to take moments to follow the ideas I have and look deeper in myself. I ask where they’re coming from and explore how I feel about it after a month. I try to embrace the same vulnerability I’ve had as a filmmaker in order to take risks.
What’s been interesting is the pressure I’ve felt from the people around me and the questions of what these projects are and what’s on my mind. I try not to think about those other people and focus on how to put myself in this place of freshness and uncertainty. Something that I feel is very important in art. Every project I start is fresh and doesn’t come from a place of experience. Instead, I try to hold onto the mindset of jumping into the unknown and following my heart. I have grown more concise in articulating my filmmaking methods and speaking my mind. I want to do things differently but I never want to feel ready. I want to go to premieres and experience the same scary feeling. I hope I never lose that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood was released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland from 13 October, 2023. Read our review of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood!