Ena Sendijarevic’s Dutch-Indonesian film Sweet Dreams can be easily relocated to India during British rule. In fact, we have had cinema and literature abounding in similar narratives of colonial entitlement and the concomitant exploitation of the natives. What sets Sendijarevic’s gaze at colonialism apart is its refusal to pander to the usual binaries of good and bad, hero and villain, oppressed and the oppressor. There is a refusal to straitjacket things which makes for a far more intriguing exploration; one which oscillates between the horrifying and the fascinating, one in which the victim might turn out having agency with the victimizer ending up a fool.
Sweet Dreams has been chosen as The Netherlands’ official entry for the International Feature Film award at the 2024 Academy Awards. Situated in a remote fictional Indonesian island, the film is about a Dutch sugar plantation owner Jan (Hans Dagelet) and his wife Agathe (Renee Soutendijk) lording over the local inhabitants in the name of bringing civilisation, discipline and culture to the supposedly brute beings. A mission of God as they call it. Sendijarevic comes to the point quickly after setting up the scenario.
So, Jan drops dead one night on returning to Agathe from his daily sojourn with his local housemaid and concubine Siti (Hayati Azis). Desperate to maintain status quo which helps her hold on to the power and the privileges, Agathe coaxes her estranged son Cornelis (Florian Myjer) and his wife Josefien (Lisa Zweerman), to travel from Europe and take over the family estate, plantation and the factory. But that isn’t going to be a cakewalk with the workers uprising and Jan’s will bequeathing all the assets to Karel (Rio Kaj Den Haas), his young illegitimate son from Siti.
The first thing that strikes one about Sweet Dreams is the sumptuousness of its frames and the way the light suffuses them, be it the dense verdant forest or the ornate, opulent interiors of the estate. But all of it has more meaning than the beauty that meets the eye.
There is a distinct visual panache and singular sense of mood and atmospherics that permeate the film. It relies on the power of the visual, uses the colour palette to keep offering cues to underscore the reality of the world of the workers (in black) as opposed to that of their masters (clad in white). So, when one of them, Reza (Muhammad Khan), talks about “killing the parasites”, or asks Siti to leave the estate, live in nature like wild animals and build a new life with him, it’s not just a hint but a full-blown prediction of the imminent and welcome demise of colonialism.
Sweet Dreams is rooted in history but plays out like a fable or fantasy or a nightmare if you’d call it that. Sendijarevic uses the power of the deadpan to make a larger political point, be it in the blunt, automated, staccato way in which the story progresses or the deliberately poker-faced performances of the key players.
The characters themselves personify crucial ideas and are repositories of certain values yet can throw a surprise at the audience with an unanticipated turn. Josefien, a typical frail and fragile white beauty, and heavily pregnant at that, may not be able to deal with the heat and the mosquitoes of the tropics but strikes an unusual bond with Reza that forest is a witness to. However, some relationships deserved a deeper exploration, the loving bond between Jan and Karel, for instance. The ensemble is in fine fettle with Azis as Siti capping it with her droll dissent.
Sendijarevic’s film might be a tale that has been oft told, about the power struggles, corruption and chaos of colonialism, but is imbued with a stylistic audacity that engages and beguiles by turn.
Cinema Without Borders
In this weekly column, the writer introduces you to powerful cinema from across the world
Film: Sweet Dreams