San Sebastian 2023 review: Sultana’s Dream (Isabel Herguera)

Sultana’s Dream is an extraordinary achievement from a filmmaker who has proven herself as something of a revolutionary in her field.”

In order to understand one’s identity we have to look to the past to fully comprehend the scope of a particular culture. This was the starting point for Isabel Herguera when she set out to adapt Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sahkawat Hossain, taking a classical text written at the turn of the previous century and turning it into a fascinating and deeply moving examination of gender and identity, as told through the story of an alternate reality in which women are in power and men resident in seclusion. As Herguera’s first feature-length production after over a quarter of a century working in short-form filmmaking, this film presents us with an unforgettable depiction of a young woman’s journey into the past, particularly in how she comes to realize the depth of her own existence through stumbling on this cherished text. This correlates to the director’s own journey with the book and its message, which has now been meticulously brought to the screen by a team that truly believes in the message embedded in this iconic story about female empowerment and the journey of self-discovery that every young woman experiences as they set forward into adulthood.

Herguera may have made only a small handful of films over the course of her career, but we can justify the pace at which she works by noting how every one of her films is a labour of love, a delicate and meaningful voyage into a particular subject. Sultana’s Dream is a strikingly beautiful film, albeit one that uses slightly unconventional methods to create the world in which these characters reside, especially in the two distinct styles that differentiate the modern world from the one contained within the book. The animation is bursting with life – the two distinct visual styles seem like they would clash but actually work extraordinarily well together, being perfectly integrated and oddly complementary to one another. This is a credit to the director and her incredible attention to detail in illustrating the concepts found throughout this inspirational story that clearly had a profound meaning for her, and very likely will have the same effect on the audience.

Not a traditional adaptation of the source material, but rather a film that uses the older text as inspiration (with a framing device that the director constructs herself), Sultana’s Dream is as much about the director as it is about the original writer, with Herguera using this film as a means to explore certain important and fascinating issues that we have rarely seen covered in the realm of animation, at least not with this degree of intimacy and dedication to important matters. It is not a conventional approach, and there are moments when the film relies quite heavily on more abstract concepts to fully realize its vision, becoming an astonishing piece of cinema that is not always straightforward but does carry a significance that soon becomes clear as we navigate our way through this deeply captivating story about identity. In particular, the film examines the journey of two young women from different cultures and temporal eras, and how they come to terms with their own budding femininity in a world where gender dynamics are far from perfect. The text has often been described as utopian, and Herguera does acknowledge these ideas throughout the film, but puts them into a context that is somewhat realistic, while not losing the fantastical elements that keep the story engaging.

Despite the original story having been written in 1905 and set mainly within the Bengal region of Southern Asia, the themes at the heart of Sultana’s Dream are universal, which is precisely how Herguera managed to cobble together such an extraordinary film based on some profound ideas brought on by the story. Oscillating between stunning spoken-word poetry and beautiful song (which is especially notable considering that one of the most impactful ways of exploring a culture is through its music), we are immersed in a delicate and moving film about female empowerment. A striking parable in which an alternate reality is proposed, and used to convey a message that may be aligned with fantasy but has its roots in reality, making the film so profoundly moving. Beautifully animated and told with care and commitment to the message of this story, Sultana’s Dream is an extraordinary achievement from a filmmaker who has proven herself as something of a revolutionary in her field, and who brings this radical sense of cultural authenticity to the film, one of the most astonishing achievements in animation of the past year.