Sundance Series: Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Every single year, Sundance Film Festival brings artists and audiences together for the premiere of groundbreaking work. This year, we had the opportunity to speak with many creatives and professionals who have worked on some of the incredible work being spotlighted at this incredible festival. 

Editors: Tushar Prakash & Hendrik Mägar

Project: Smoke Sauna Sisterhood 

Synopsis: Tucked in a lush green forest in southern Estonia, a group of women gather in the safe darkness of a smoke sauna to share their innermost thoughts and secrets. Enveloped by a warm, dense heat, they bare all to expel fears and shame trapped in their bodies and regain their strength.


How long have you been in the industry and where do you draw your inspiration from?

Tushar Prakash: My participation in the industry has been in phases. Altogether I have been in the industry for fifteen years. But this includes four years of education, sabbaticals, role exchanges, workshops etc. As a creative person I draw inspirations from history, philosophy, art, folklore and mythology. Everyday talks with people, friends and life experiences are invaluable. As for the craft of editing, I am very inspired by the work and ideas of Walter Murch and how he brought a very 'European' cinema mindset to the popular Hollywood genre. "the kuleshov editing effect", which is the foundation of the film editing technique, is something that I keep coming back to not just in editing, but also in script writing. Because of my Polish Film School education, I am also very inspired by the Polish Documentary editors who were masterful in creating a smooth flow in the observational style of filmmaking, which was further used by Kieslowski during his early fiction work to create a mix of reality and fiction.

Hendrik Mägar: I started to edit my first feature film in 2015, just a couple of months after I finished my studies at film school. This was 8 years ago. But prior to that I had already worked on film sets since 2007. I was still in high school back then. I have been assistant to almost all departments on set and I have done 2 feature films as 1st AD.

Films tell stories about people: their fate, experiences, and relationships. Therefore, people and life itself is one of the main resources of inspiration. Having meaningful relationships with others will provide you so much life experience even if you haven't lived through the same events. Also, any other kind of artforms besides films enrich your imagination: it can be paintings or literature, photography or dance. 

What made you sign onto this project?

Tushar Prakash: It was through pure luck that I came onto the project. I was first asked to help the director navigate through the footage and to log it and sort it. Then there was a gap in the ongoing editing process due to the availability of the various editors. To keep the project progressing, I was asked to join in as I was available and able to understand the director's creative vision due to my familiarity with the material. Those few months that I spent with the director on the project gave her the chance to find the language of the film at her own pace and leisure. The two of us were practically living with the project for 6-8 months, giving her the chance to experiment, explore various avenues and get to know the footage. It was a very dreamy process where the director would get dreams regarding the scenes and sequences, and we could execute the ideas the very next morning.

Hendrik Mägar: Universal topics in a unique environment were the key factors that caught my attention.

“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” talks about taboos without shame or judgment. Many subjects become taboos due to our social background, beliefs or upbringing. But they shouldn't be taboos - childhood traumas, being accepted, having abortion, gay/lesbian relationships are part of life and very much present in our society. If we don't talk about those subjects then we can´t learn from other people's experiences and have to learn everything the hard way on our own. The aim was to create a warm and caring environment for the ladies where they can open up, share and heal together - sauna gives the framework for that. The openness and will from the characters to share such personal experiences in such a direct way made me appreciate the potential of this footage.

The visual style and the fact that it is actually filmed in heated saunas was something unique. The efforts that cinematographer Ants Tammik and everybody else on the set had put in to authentically capture the atmosphere in the sauna is remarkable. I think every filmmaker can imagine what happens to camera and lenses when they are put into a warm and moist environment.

How do you know if a film is going to get into Sundance?

Tushar Prakash: My conscious mind never knew it right until we were told by the selection committee over a zoom call. However, in hindsight I can say that deep within my body and gut I knew it when I saw the final cut that was completed by the director and our main editor. But since the first viewing of the material, I knew that the material is very special, the question would just be if the editing team is able to meet the expectations of the director, who had spent 7 years in the filming process.

Hendrik Mägar: I knew that this film has a big festival potential due to the topics that are discussed on the screen. Also, the timing to release this film in 2023 seemed accurate. Past year there have been quite a lot of political decisions all around the world which in my mind are making backwards steps in human rights. Bunch of old men are once again making rules about how women should behave, what they can wear, what they can do in their lives and with their bodies.

But the fact that “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” got selected to Sundance was still a surprise for me as I know how many films are submitted and how few of them get selected every year. I got the information that we were selected from my director and producer.

Can you describe what it was like collaborating with the other pros (like the director) about feedback?

Tushar Prakash: As I mentioned my process of editing was very hands on with the director where both of us were 'living' with the material for 6-8 months. However, after I had finished my process and Hendrik Mägar took over the project my task was to guide him through the material if needed or point at a particular kind of shot if he needed.

Hendrik Mägar: We had a caring and trustful relationship with the director. All the concerns and all the joys were shared, discussed in an open and caring way. As the film itself is very delicate, so was the process of editing. We had cognitive periods where you watch the cut more with the heart when you trust gut feelings and of course we had periods that were full of analysis.

As I joined with the crew on a halfway through post-production, working with feedback was the key to shape the film to its final form. I needed a plurality of opinions beside my own thoughts to pick the right path for this story.

For feedback we used Rough Cut Service (RCS) twice - once before I started editing and second time a couple of weeks before the picture lock. RCS provides editing feedback to documentaries from experienced editors and directors. Having those in depth conversations with Jordana Berg and Yael Bitton were crucial to reshape the film in such a short time (40 days of editing).

I have always appreciated constructive feedback because every person's receptions are different and can vary depending on our cultural background or our everyday job. If the film's aim is to address and speak to a wide audience then a variety of feedback becomes very useful. Past 4 years I have developed my own workflow on feedback information management to avoid confusion and being overwhelmed.

I usually don't make any written notes during those feedback conversations - I record the conversations in audio and make my notes the following day while listening to the playback. This gives me the opportunity to be fully engaged with the verbal conversation even if it feels that it's not going in the right direction. It has happened more than once that after 30 minutes of discussing something that I do not agree with we reach to something so defining that can become useful. Therefore, it's important not to take a defensive position if you feel that the feedback is not going where you think it should. There might be surprising discoveries on the way if you keep yourself open and your ego detached from the film on screen. While making written notes during conversation you have to divide your attention and quite often end up with notes that are too short to capture the full meaning of the conversation. So you might end up with misleading information on the paper if you multitask through the process.

Do you have a favorite editing sequence? If so, what was it?

Tushar Prakash: My favorite editing sequence is the "Voov sequence", which is the climactic ending of the movie. I still remember when we formed the energetic language of that sequence – it was all about letting the camera do its thing, and cutting in a way where the audience is drawn into the dizziness of the space and you feel the heat and sweat on your skin. I love it when they keep the 'imperfections' of the camera because it somehow communicates the moment that was playing out in front of the camera. Filmmaking is all about the moment, and when the DOP is also caught up in the moment it is a powerful decision to highlight that and to keep that in.

Hendrik Mägar: It's the closing sequence where all the ladies sing together. It's raw, it's authentic, it's so powerful. It became even stronger for me when I found out that nothing like this was planned while shooting - it just happened in its natural way.

It is a beautiful way to liberate yourself from the harshness that has accumulated throughout the film and to move on in life with peace and confidence. This is the sisterhood in its raw beauty.

What were some of the editing challenges you encountered? How did you handle those?

Tushar Prakash: I faced two kinds of editing challenges: First was the variety of footage that had been shot over the years, the second was that different saunas had different visual styles. The first one was solved by exhaustive sorting - labeling and color coding on adobe premiere pro. By the end, the footage had become very searchable in Adobe Premiere Pro. The second challenge was solved by allowing ourselves to treat every scene as its own world and editing every scene according to how its footage spoke. So instead of imposing a style on the footage, it was letting the footage guide us on how it had to be constructed. If the scene asked for many cuts and coverage we did so. If the scene was most powerful in a single take, we did so. If the scene was 'cinema verite' style and it begged for the 'camera faults' to be included, we did so.

Hendrik Mägar: With documentaries it's always the beginning - first 12 minutes. The amount of time and work that goes into openings is so much greater than with any other scene. There is so much to establish - “who? what? where?” - while keeping the style and audience attention in place. You can never forget how your film ends while building the beginning because you choose what kind of expectations the audience will have in the beginning. Of course, you can play around with the expectations and be surprising at times but it's important that the ending of the film will satisfy audience expectations in general.

In “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” I had to take a couple of steps backwards to make the beginning work and make it simpler. The amount of music used was too big and that's the danger with music in editing generally. Good piece of music makes any kind of edit work as it takes over viewers’ attention.

From the technical side there was one scene in the second part of the film that took place while whisking. There is a constant sound of whisking (wet branches hitting skin) throughout the dialogue scene. To make any dialogue cuts you had to match the pace and style of whisking to hide the cut. Whisking is not constant in movement and sound: some phases are softer, others harder and sometimes the strokes are fondled. So, we tried to match whisking styles with the dramaturgy of the scene.

Let's talk about your experience using Premiere Pro. What was that like? How did it help you accomplish your work?

Tushar Prakash: I have been using Premiere Pro for many years now. In this project every skill of mine regarding the project was exhausted. Premiere Pro allowed us to make multiple sequences according to the footage. It allowed us to make multiple layers to create our 'half dissolve' sequences. Premiere Pro is also very intuitive – this allowed us to forget the operations and concentrate on the creativity.

Hendrik Mägar: I have used Premiere Pro since 2010. In that sense it was business as usual. Luckily all the previous editors of this film were also using Premiere Pro. So, transferring the project from one person to the other was smooth and easy.

In general I'm glad that Adobe has put some attention into feature films editors' workflow over the past years. Although we didn't use multicam to patch-sync video with audio on this project, the function itself together with the workflow has gotten better in the last couple of years.

What advice would you have for directors on working with editors?

Tushar Prakash: A director has lived the project for many more years than the editor and it is understandable that they don't want to kill their darlings so easily. I believe you should let your darlings live before you kill them, so do what is needed to let your ideas shine and let your darlings live. But once you have gotten the satisfaction of letting them live, allow the editor to kill them. For this both must agree on a neutral method to decide what must be killed. I think in our project it was a great idea to bring editing consultants on board to give a professional view on what worked and what did not work. This allowed the director and the editor to remove the important but not needed sequences that were damaging the movie’s viewing experience. For the best film experience, every shot matters, and the director and the editor have to do what is needed to form a decision making chain that they trust. For this, a third party team might be the best solution.

Hendrik Mägar: Pick the right person I guess. Editing is such a delicate process and you will spend so much time together. During intense editing periods you will see your director or editor more than you see your family. On a human level you should get along well enough to go out for a beer or go sightseeing together. Trust, respect and genuine interest towards one another are unavoidable characteristics to have resourceful collaboration. It's more difficult to be honest if there is an elephant in the room.

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