Sultana's Dream


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Sultana's Dream
"Sultana's Dream's dense philosophical backbone proves quite meandering in places but even if not every abstract idea hits the target, the animation is always on point." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Feminist theory, personal experience and enticingly intricate animation come together in Isabel Herguera’s feature debut. Inspired by the 1905 feminist fable by Rokeya Hossain, which imagines the utopian country of Ladyland, where women hold sway and men stay at home, Herguera weaves together an immersive imagining of Hussains’ work with the story of a young Spanish protagonist, Inés (voice by Miren Arrieta), and Hussain herself.

Herguera has - perhaps as a result of its more than 10 years in the making - packed in so many ideas, the end result is sprawling in terms of its themes but never less than mesmerising to look at. Animator Inés stumbles on Hossain’s book on a trip to India to visit and split up with Amar (Manu Khurana). What follows is a journey of discovery that will take us not just to India but also Spain and Italy and which will offer up encounters with the likes of British historian Mary Beard and writer, gender theorist and filmmaker Paul B Preciado (Orlando: My Political Biography), who both play themselves.

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From the start Inés meets a young teacher, Sudhanya, who accompanies her on her journey - not just physically but philosophically as the pair of them contemplate feminism within the constraints of the modern world. Among the ideas explored are the subjugation of women at the hands of men - something flipped by Hossain’s work, where the men are kept at home because of their violent tendencies and peace reigns supreme - and the differences in gender approach between Europe and India. The danger men pose to women also lurks at the edges of Herguera’s film right from the start - an indication, perhaps, that no matter where we live or how far we think we have travelled in terms of equality, the road remains long.

Sultana's Dream's dense philosophical backbone proves quite meandering in places but even if not every abstract idea hits the target, the animation is always on point. The framework story is vibrantly depicted in 2D animation, its watercolour quality lending a sense of movement and bustle, especially in Inés’ Indian travels. Hussain’s story favour’s cut-out animation, the shadow-puppet style carrying with it the heritage of Lotte Reiniger. Ladyland, meanwhile, has the detailed quality of the likes of The Secret Of Kells, drawing on the complex designs of mehndi henna tattoos to create a textured world that is almost begging you to get lost in it.

Reviewed on: 24 Oct 2023
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Taking her inspiration from a feminist sci-fi short story written in Bengal in 1905, Inés sets out on a voyage of discovery around India in search of Ladyland, the Utopian land of women.

Director: Isabel Herguera

Writer: Isabel Herguera, Gianmarco Serra

Starring: Mary Beard, Paul B. Preciado, Roberto Bessi, Miren Arrieta, Nausheen Javeed, Ranjitha Rajeevan, Miren Gabilondo, Debjani Mukherjee

Year: 2023

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: Germany, Spain


SSFF 2023
Leeds 2023

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