As the Oscar Campaign of ‘Smoke Sauna Sisterhood’ Lifts Off, Baltic Cinema Looks to Break Out: ‘It Flies in the World’

At the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia, the Baltic Film sidebar has showcased an impressive range of work from the Baltic states – Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia – including the post-Soviet documentary “The Last Relic” and the 3D fable “Twittering Soul,” the hand-painted animation “The Peasants” and the Estonian oddity of “Spit in My Face.”

A palpable urgency can be felt as these former Soviet countries find themselves once more quite literally on the frontline between Europe and Russia and seek to affirm more keenly their own identity.

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Leading the way this year has been “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood,” an intimate documentary of women ridding themselves of their demons in the smoke sauna of the title. Having picked up prizes in Sundance and now Tallinn, the film is heading into the Oscar race as Estonia’s nominee and is in the running in the documentary category also.

Speaking with Variety, director Anna Hints expresses her bemused delight: “It’s something I’m still processing. It’s surreal to see mostly American productions. And there is our film, almost like an error.” It’s been a long journey and Hints wryly notes the film is being praised for qualities that saw her initial application for funding rejected. “It was such a challenge to shoot and such a local culture. South-eastern Estonia is such a small part of the world.” But Hints believes that Estonia – like the other Baltic nations – suffers from an inferiority complex. “As Estonians, we are like peasants who peek into the landlord’s main house through the window. And then we go back to our farm, and start to imitate it.”

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood”

“Smoke Sauna” represents a unique piece of heritage: “I didn’t realize how special it is. It was only when visiting a sweat lodge in the United States I realized that back home I had something so special.” This confident assertion of local identity is key to the success of the film: “The unique part is the local part, where we find our unique voices, and at the same time, they resonate with the world, because they somehow touch the human condition.”

The Latvian film “My Freedom” speaks directly to the moment and Latvia’s liberation from the former USSR, but it was conceived seven years earlier. The film follows Alicija (Erika Eglija-Gravele), a political activist as she stands for election to the Supreme Council in 1990. “In the 80s, I was a teenager,” director Ilze Kunga-Melgaile tells Variety. “In the 90s there were lots of problems with ordinary life, finding enough to eat, and from 2000 on the problems were to do with the growing influence from Moscow. I based Alicija on the real life activist Ita Kozakeviča. She was very clever to remind people that having freedom means nothing if you don’t fight every day for this freedom. It’s like the Neverending Story.”

My Freedom
“My Freedom”

Mainly financed by Latvian funds, some funding was also provided by Lithuania where postproduction was also based. The multinational cast and crew featured people from the Baltic states as well as Ukrainians and Russians. “My cameraman was from St. Petersburg, because we studied together. We were shooting a short time after the Bucha massacre was discovered and my cameraman was feeling great shame and was crying and embracing the Ukrainian actors.”

Lithuanian filmmaker Romas Zabarauskas’ fourth feature film “The Writer” was directly influenced by the invasion of Ukraine. It tells the story of two Lithuanian men who reunite in New York 30 years after their military service in the Soviet army and discuss love and their own accommodations with history.

Zabarauskas tells Variety: “Many of us in our region don’t want to be associated with our Soviet past. But this war made me think that current Russian terror is not dissimilar from Soviet Russian terror, and we still have a lot of things to unpack and acknowledge. I was born in the same year that Lithuania declared independence in 1990. But I’m interested in reaching even younger audiences who are also trying to deal with that.”

The Writer
“The Writer”

“The Writer,” as an English-language film, attempts a different route to reach an international audience, to that of “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” and the Russian-language “My Freedom.” However, all the Baltic filmmakers Variety spoke to agreed that aside from global audiences, it was difficult getting other Baltic nations to watch their films. This was partly because – despite geographic proximity – the Baltic nations are so different. For Latvian Kunga-Melgaile, the Lithuanians are like Italians and the Estonians have an absurd sense of humor “like the Finns.”

Estonian producer of “Smoke Sauna” Marianne Ostrat disagrees: “We’re like Brazilians.” Diversity is the key, she says, pointing out that Estonian is the most atheistic country in the world whereas Lithuania is three quarters Catholic. The point for Ostrat, who as well as producing a number of films has now found herself orchestrating an Oscar campaign from scratch, is to find the “sweet spot” between artistic vision and the moviegoing public. However, she cautions that the success of “Smoke Sauna” won’t be easy to replicate: “It’s celebrated here because it is profoundly Estonian and it flies in the world. But we can’t also make it a model that now we will do films like that. It’s still about the original vision with different directors.”

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