From Iceland — A Soul-Cleansing Ritual: "Smoke Sauna Sisterhood" Reveals Untold Secrets

A Soul-Cleansing Ritual: “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” Reveals Untold Secrets

Published January 16, 2024

A Soul-Cleansing Ritual: “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” Reveals Untold Secrets
Photo by
Art Bicnick
Supplied stills

The air is thick with heat. Wooden walls echo the sounds of people breathing, talking, laughing. The wood is crackling with fire and once the water hits hot stones, a soft hiss is released. Outside, the night is silent. An owl hoots.

Those are my memories of many nights spent in a wooden sauna nestled away in the forest of North Karelia in Finland, but it is very similar to the experiences of the women depicted in the award-winning documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, directed by Estonian filmmaker Anna Hints. The director not only introduces the viewer to the UNESCO-protected smoke sauna tradition of the Estonian Võro community but takes a deeper look at the varied human stories of saunagoers, both happy and sad.

This film touches on something that is rarely out in the open. It’s a mind-opener.

It’s been a few months since I watched the film at a festival at Bíó Paradís, but the aftertaste lingers still. It is an intimate and cathartic experience rarely encountered in cinema. The documentary — a co-production of Estonia, France and Iceland, with the latter contributing the original score and sound design — recently won Best European Documentary at the European Film Awards. To learn more about Iceland’s creative input, I met the film’s co-producer, Hlín Johannesdottír, at Sundhöllin public swimming pool on a busy morning right before Christmas. With water steaming on the rocks, we sat for a chat in the warmth of the public sauna.

Sauna traditions in music and vision

While I’m worried about whether or not the phone recording will survive the heat, Hlín explains that the documentary captures a unique regional tradition. Smoke saunas don’t have chimneys, meaning the smoke from the burning wood fills the sauna. I’ve heard that the sauna experience is sometimes compared to a religious experience, being referred to as a “church for the soul.” Hlín says that the ritual can take the whole day and for the women featured in the documentary, there are no taboos. “They talk about their griefs and worries, but also happy times and they laugh a lot. This goes on for hours and hours,” says Hlín. “Then they go out and bathe in the summertime or dive into the freezing water in the wintertime.”

I’m curious to find out how Iceland ended up being involved in the project. “Marianne Ostrat, who’s the leading producer of this project and has been relentlessly working on it for years and years, asked me to participate if Iceland could come in with the musical elements and the sound design,” Hlín explains. Marianne first introduced Hlín to the project in 2018. Having previously worked with Eðvarð Egilsson on a film called Skjálfti (Quake), she immediately thought he would be an excellent match. “He’s kind of a spiritual guy. Open-minded, very creative, very good musician. He just jumped on it. That was like a match made in heaven,” Hlín smiles.

Eðvarð travelled to Estonia, recording sounds in different saunas to experience the ritual firsthand. Paired with sound designer Huldar Freyr Arnarson and the director’s own folk band EETER, Eðvarð managed to create a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack where breaths and the hisses of the sauna blend with music.

The producer’s creative pulse

Hlín, who started her film career in 2000, explains how producers are essential in making any film. They take on the role of planning the financing, deciding who will be involved in the project and drafting a timeline of how to make it happen. “There are lots of questions that the producer needs to answer and put down in writing before stuff gets financing,” she explains, emphasising that cooperation between the director and the producer is fundamental. “The filmmaker has the artistic vision, but what the producer does is make the artistic vision happen,” she says. “A producer is not only a strategic planner and financier, which they certainly are, but also a creative. It’s a very creative occupation.”

It wasn’t different in the case of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. When director Anna came up with the idea for the documentary, she knew she wanted to tell a story. With the help of producer Marianne, that story first got an outline and things started taking shape. It’s been a lengthy process — with some of the first recordings dating back seven years. In documentary filmmaking, editing can take a long time, Hlín says, “It can be very draining because you have to move and shake the material since you don’t have lines and scenes like in scripted films.”

Hlín emphasises that the most challenging thing in making the film was aligning everyone involved with the same dynamics. “I’m not gonna lie. It wasn’t always a walk in the park,” she says, adding that filming in a confined environment, with sauna temperatures often reaching 60-90 degrees, was another challenge. Cinematographer Ants Tammik went through a number of lenses as they would overheat. As the women in the sauna are completely naked, many of the scenes can be considered explicit and required prior consent. However, in the process of editing, the stories and bodies have been purposely mismatched.

“It’s not about the person itself, it is more about this ritual and the common emotions, feelings that people have been sharing in this closed environment where everything is safe,” Hlín speaks of showing parts of the body not in connection with a person.

Emotional depths

With Smoke Sauna Sisterhood receiving multiple awards and nominations, starting with the Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Hlín agrees that it’s been a whirlwind year for the film. “To win the European Documentary is amazing,” she beams with pride.

You’re basically sitting there in the sauna and listening to the stories. This film is about relating and being human.

Hlín has been observing the audience during festival screenings and confirms that viewers are often quite emotional when leaving the screening room. “This film touches on something that is rarely out in the open. It’s a mind-opener,” she says, adding that overall the audience can relate to the stories, even though some might be more difficult than others. “Every human being has experienced things that are buried inside.” Connecting through these stories in the sauna is “soul-cleansing,” Hlín explains, saying the experience is an area where the women are letting go of emotional burdens and talking through the harshest experiences, including some as traumatic as rape.

Hlín hopes that people will go to the cinema to watch the film, but maybe first do some research on what they’re going to see. “It’s a simple kind of a concept, but with very complex undertones,” she says. “You’re basically sitting there in the sauna and listening to the stories. This film is about relating and being human.”

Could the Icelandic hot pool culture compare to the sauna rituals? Hlín isn’t positive. “The smoke sauna is like a whole different level. Nothing that is talked about in there goes out anywhere.”

Check for Smoke Sauna Sisterhood screening times in January

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