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Sultana’s Dream (El Sueño de la Sultana)

Young Spanish woman who no longer feels safe in her own country travels to India in search of a Utopian society ruled by women - animation premieres at the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival


How about a society entirely run by women, where men are kept locked in their homes doing menial tasks? Sounds a lot like Barbieland, but in reality this is Ladyland. The female rulers ascend to power by promising to defeat a bloodthirsty enemy that was hellbent in taking over their land. Their husbands agree to live in submission for the rest of their lives should their spouses succeed in their march to victory. The women use their intelligence instead of their strength in order to win (since males possess a physical advantage over females). One of the leaders provides a useful analogy: “lions are stronger than humans, and yet they don’t rule over us”. These female rulers drive the enemy away by generating sounds excruciatingly painful to the human ear, and their husbands keep their promise of living at their service. One woman marries five husbands.

This is more or less the plotline of Sultana’s Dream, a Bengali feminist story written in English during the beginning of the century by Rokeya Sahkawat Hossain, a Muslim literary firebrand. She was born in the Rangpur district of Bangladesh in 1890, and died in Kolkata (India) in 1932 (both nations where then part of the British Empire, which may explain the language choice of the visionary, dirty and subversive author). Ines (voiced by Miren Arrieta) is a Basque animator living in the Spanish capital. She travels to India in order to find out more about the woman whose stories have been the subject of her drawings for a long time. Ines is presumably a stand-in for real-life Basque filmmaker Isabel Herguera (a 62-year-old Professor of Animation at the Academy of Media Arts of Cologne, in Germany).

The film starts out as a beautiful allegory of feminism, as the Sultana’s Dream story is given a colourful lease of life through a wide spectrum of exuberant, moving images. The animation techniques are varied and multilayered. This is a visually arresting movie, with simple drawings of beautiful women (resembling charcoal paintings) juxtaposed against gingerly handmade background patterns and dreamy urban landscapes. I do not have a single criticism of the film’s technical prowess. Interestingly, the skin tones of all characters are very dark, as if the creators wanted to emphasise the connection between Indians and Europeans.

The storytelling, on the other hand, is far less impressive. After the first 20 minutes, the focus moves almost entirely to Ines’s journey through different parts of Spain, Europe and India. She spends time with her mother in San Sebastian (the Kursaal theatre where the film premiered makes a brief appearance), travelling next to Madrid and Italy. Ines meets Italian film producer Roberto Bessi and British scholar Mary Beard (author of the book Women & Power: A Manifesto), both played by themselves. Many viewers may not recognise the two personalities. Our protagonists visits at least five different cities in India, but the narrative purpose of each journey isn’t entirely clear. The script seems to meander aimlessly.

The movie is spoken is six different languages: Basque, Bengali, English, Hindi, Italian and Spanish. Such broad variety of tongues (five very different Indo-European languages and Basque, a language isolate) doesn’t craft a sense of internationalism, but instead a feeling of alienation and confusion. Sultana’s Dream would have benefitted from a a stronger focus on the eponymous story, instead of a convoluted and yet fairly uninteresting backpacker’s journey through India. A celebratory yet highly exoticised look at the world’s most populous country through very European lenses.

Sultana’s Dream just premiered in the Official Competition of the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 25-09-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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