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Sweet Dreams

Three very different women fight for their perceived home, in this exquisite allegory of Dutch colonial relations in Indonesia at the turn of the century - from the 76th Locarno Film festival


The story takes place in a farm at the heart of the dense Indonesian rainforest, in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies, in the year of 1900. Agatha (Renee Soutendijk) and her husband (Hans Dagelet) are the ageing owners of a the plantation and the factory. They enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, with a horde of employees ensuring that the business runs smoothly. Slavery has been abolished, however working conditions are barely commendable, and payments are often delayed. Jan has a child with his employee Siti (Hayati Azis), a young boy called Karel. The topic of the child’s fatherhood remains tacit, allowing Agatha and Siti to retain a civilised relationship.

Agatha is the first woman to take matters into her own hands, seeking a very strange type of liberation from her relative stability. Her meticulous actions lead to Jan’s death. She urges her son Cornelis (Florian Myjer) and his heavily pregnant friend (an equally unhappy) wife Josefien (Lisa Zweerman) to travel from the Netherlands in order to help her to run the business, and sort his father’s inventory. Nobody was prepared for what would come next. Jan wrote a testament naming his “only legitimate son” as his sole heir. That’s not European Cornelis, but instead the small, olive-skinned Karel. This leaves Agatha penniless, shocked and despondent, while also subverting colonial power relations. Maybe it’s time for the last Dutch settlers to leave? Cornelis suggests that his mother should move to Europe, but the old woman refuses to budge. She is profoundly attached to the land where she spent her entire life.

Siti is the second strong woman. She has plans for herself and her child, as well as an allegiance towards the workers with whom she shares the ethnicity. She has an affair with the charming and muscular Reza (Muhammad Khan), but refuses to flee with her people. She doesn’t want to return to her origins. In fact, she has never been to the place of her origins (the film once again delves into an elusive sense of belonging). While it is her self-determination that prevails, the real motives that drive Siti are never entirely clear. She is mysterious and ambiguous, the most complex character in the film. A deeply introspective, cathartic dance at the end of the 102-minute story emphasises that she alone is the master of her steps, in one of the film’s most powerful scenes.

Josefien is the third strong-willed female character. Unlike her mother-in-law, she despise the rainforest: she finds the smells and the flies vomit-inducing, the slow passing of time excruciating. She wears the trousers in the relationship with the hesitant and dispassionate Cornelis. Despite her protruding belly, she is bursting with sexual desire, and her husband is hardly prepared to meet her needs. And she is the one who makes the decisions, spurring her spouse on as required, while also manipulating others around her in order to achieve her main objective: returning to the Netherlands. What all three women have in common is that they are in firm control of their body, as their choices gradually reveal.

Sweet Dreams meditates on colonisation, empowerment and belonging. While Josefien wants to be in Europe, Agatha and Siti want to stay at the rainforest. The identity of these three women is defined by their life and experience, and not by their ethnicity. Agatha is a European whose heart belongs in the Indonesian rainforest. She takes this attachment to an extreme, in the other one of the film’s most powerful scenes. This is a movie that derives its strengths from strong scenes infused with symbolism, rather than complex, multi-threaded dialogues. It is often silence and exuberant body language that prevails. These women communicate with their subtle (and also not-so-subtle) gestures. It helps that the production values are very high: the cinematography is rich and vibrant, with the bursting colours of the rainforest, while music score is pervasive and enveloping (composed of various strings gingerly arranged to enthralling – and at times unsettling – results). This is an elegant arthouse period drama that delivers constant thrills and occasional chills.

Sweet Dreams just premiered in the Official Competition of the 76th Locarno Film Festival. It is the second feature film by Bosnian-Dutch director Ena Sendijarevic, who also wrote both of her movies.

By Victor Fraga - 04-08-2023

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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