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Ants Tammik • Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Dec 18, 2023

(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 015 May/June 2023)

THE NAKED TRUTH

By Natasha Block Hicks

In the soot-blackened belly of a savvusann – the traditional smoke sauna of the Võro community in Southern Estonia – a cross-generational group of women gather through the seasons to sweat, cleanse and confide in each other. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, the feature documentary from Sundance Award-winning director Anna Hints, invites us to enter and silently witness this intimate shedding of skin, both literal and figurative. 

Ants Tammik

For the uninitiated, sitting motionless and striving to stay conscious would be all that could reasonably be expected of most people in a charred, chimneyless space, where the temperature peaks at 95°C, and whose dual purpose is also as a smokehouse for curing hanging parcels of ham. In the film, one of the women-subjects casually remarks that they must wet their hair to prevent it from snapping in the heat. For cinematographer Ants Tammik however, the extreme environment was a welcome one. 

“I really like to push the limits,” Tammik reveals. “My record was shooting in 48°C in the Oman desert and –42°C in Siberia. I really enjoy it because it gives me adrenaline and excitement. I find shooting in a studio really tough; my brain needs fresh air and sunlight. And sauna.”

Tammik is, like many Estonians, a sauna aficionado, himself owning a Finnish-style example, which he likes to use at “every free moment”. In a country where 58% of the population claim ‘no religion’, and only 14% cite organised faiths as a feature of daily life, the sauna occupies a substantial spiritual space within the national psyche. It is a place where souls can congregate, connect with the elemental forces of fire and water, confide both traumas and triumphs and be cleansed of impurities, all within the partial anonymity of darkness.

The smoke sauna culture in particular incorporates recognisable ritualistic elements: the devotional tending of the fire before the sauna; blessings given to water; repetitive chanting; and the scouring of the skin with salt or handfuls of birch whips. Finding a connection with the spirits of dead ancestors is an integral part of the ceremony.

The preparation involved in bringing the sauna’s firebox and surrounding rocks up to a sustainable temperature can take several hours. Which means that gatherings at the savvusann tend to be a lengthy affairs with sustained exposure to the sweltering heat achievable by periodic immersion in the chill of icy waters in a nearby lake. 

All this makes for a very challenging shooting environment.

“Sauna sessions lasted four to eight hours,” relates Tammik. “Physically it was hard. I would wear a hat, T-shirt and pants. Before we began, I would jump fully-clothed into the cold lake because then my body temperature was lowered to start with.”

Special precautions were also needed for the filming kit, to give it the best chance of functioning in the savvusann’s extreme heat.

“I would put one set of lenses inside the sauna two or three hours beforehand – as it was heating up – first on the floor, then moving up, until they were at the highest level where the temperature was the same as we would be shooting,” reveals Tammik. “Another set was kept for outside. In winter it can easily reach -15°C, and there is no way a lens could survive that change in temperature.”

Tammik’s choice of lens was entirely practical.

“When you put together glass and metal housing, and expose it to 90°C and high humidity, there will be expansion and contraction,” he explains, “the glass can play, or even crack.”

The Sigma Art lenses, whilst still industry-standard, represented a sensible budget option.  

“The ARRI Amira’s ventilation system is top-notch. I was sure the camera could survive the extreme temperature”

“I choose the Sigmas because there was no point in using lenses which cost, say, €30,000 each,” states Tammik, “I lost two lenses during production, so it was the right choice.”

The selection of the camera was more aesthetically considered.

“I did test some other cameras, but ended-up using my own ARRI Amira,” says Tammik. 

“The main object of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood was the naked body, and ARRI really is the best for skin tones,” he explains. “Also, I know that the ARRI Amira ventilation system is top-notch. I was quite sure the camera could survive in that extreme of temperature.”

Unlike the lenses, the Amira was expected to move between the hot and cold environments. Inside the sauna it was accompanied by a plastic box full of iced freezer blocks, which were renewed regularly during shooting.

“Doing this would give us a little bit more time before the camera’s ventilation got really noisy,” relates Tammik. “I had an assistant outside of the sauna who would pass in water for me and ice blocks for the camera.”

In winter, when Tammik moved outside to capture exterior scenes, such as the women skipping barefoot through the snow before dunking themselves through a specially-cut opening in the ice on the lake, the Amira’s metal alloy housing would freeze.

“It was continually under threat of water of some sort,” reveals Tammik. “If we went inside again, you could see droplets falling from the camera, through the ventilation, and everywhere. I was prepared to lose that camera, but somehow it survived.”

Lighting was kept simple, limited to a SkyPanel S60 and ARRI HMI daylight fresnels, with the savvusann’s interior illuminated only from outside through its tiny windows. This single source technique backlights the billowing steam, bounces off glistening bodies and refracts through tumbling water, with the shadows looking dense and impenetrable.

“The only direction the women received was where to sit in the sauna so that the lighting and composition worked,” details Tammik. “They generally started by sharing lighter stories, and as the smoke sauna started to work its magic, more intimate and often more traumatic stories started to come forth. My job and that of sound recordist, Tanel Kadalipp, was to capture this unfolding, and we were privileged to witness that.”

“It’s so enjoyable to work with a director who totally understands and supports you”   

Most women around the globe, regardless of their age or background, would be familiar with the personal ‘herstories’ being shared within the sauna’s confessional: tales of sexual assault, parental callousness, childbirth trauma, loss of a loved one and the alienation caused by divergent sexual identity. 

For a documentary filmmaker, the challenge is how to capture these very private moments without piercing the protective bubble created by the savvusann. 

“These are intelligent women and they wanted to tell their stories,” remarks Tammik. “The trust really came through Anna. The women knew her artistic intentions beforehand. She spent time with them before the sauna and was also among the sisterhood inside the sauna. 

“I think it also helped that I’m not such a masculine ‘alpha man’ in my appearance,” he adds, “they took me for a little safe guy.”

It was agreed that only women who were comfortable doing so would show their faces. Others are depicted as torsos or sometimes just fleshy forms of light and shadow. Certain tales are related by a voice in the darkness, the camera observing only the listeners’ reactions and knowing nods of support. 

“Anna is a really visual director,” relates Tammik, “she really understands composition, and likes to use symbols and layers. From the first day we realised that we have the same language. It’s so enjoyable to work with this kind of director who totally understands and supports you to do a good thing.”   

The pair aimed for simplicity on the colour grade, handled by Sten-Johan Lill, himself a DP and four-times winner of Best Cinematography at the Estonian Film and TV Awards.

“We didn’t over-think it,” says Tammik. “We played around with skin colours and this reddish tone I really like that can be found in the shadow part of skins. I also wanted to capture that blueish light you see when you look out into the harsh winter nature from the warm protective place of the sauna; it’s magical and a little bit dangerous. But in the other seasons, we just tried to catch the true colour.”   

In the closing moments of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, a woman floats on her back in the black water of the lake. Her demeanour is of someone liberated and uplifted. Out of sight, her sisters’ whoops and chirrups blend with the surrounding birdsong. 

“We Estonians may not believe so much in God,” remarks Tammik, “but we really believe in nature and in the spirit around us.”

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