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“I Love the Kind of Cinema That [Tells You Everything] Through Images, Where Every Frame is Like a Painting”: Ena Sendijarević’ on Her Metrograph Series, Sweet Dreams

Sweet Dreams

Amsterdam-based, Bosnian-born filmmaker Ena Sendijarević’s two features to date, Take Me Somewhere Nice and Sweet Dreams, hone the filmmaker’s personal cinematic language while expanding the parameters of her own perspective. The former, her 2019 debut feature, follows a Dutch teen as she journeys to visit her ailing Bosnian father in the hospital. The latter, which will screen at NYC’s Metrograph beginning today, chronicles the decline of a wealthy Dutch family’s Indonesian sugar plantation at the turn of the 20th century.

While her first feature explores the contours of Eastern and Western European relations—a subject Sendijarević is familiar with as a refugee of the Bosnian War—Sweet Dreams required extensive research from the writer-director, involving copious reading and a five-month guided tour of Indonesia, in order to provoke necessary discourse on Dutch colonial violence. Though both films portray diverse subjects, Sendijarević’s visual sensibility and surreal-satiric inclination never waver, solidifying her position as an aesthetically assured rising filmmaker.

I chatted with Sendijarević over a Zoom call days before her Metrograph series, “Somewhere Nice,” and Sweet Dreams’ theatrical run. Below, find the filmmaker’s thoughts on collaborating with her regular cinematographer Emo Weenhoff, the iconic Eurythmics song her latest film shares a title with and what she considers to be her forthcoming European film trilogy.

Filmmaker: I want to ask about the thread that led you from Take Me Somewhere Nice to Sweet Dreams. Both films share similar themes and visual sensibilities, though your sophomore feature arguably leans more into overt satire and surrealism.

Sendijarević: The new project is, to a certain extent, a reaction to the previous one. After I made Take Me Somewhere Nice, which focuses on the relationship between Eastern Europe and Western Europe, I felt the desire to understand a bit more about my Western European [identity], because it’s basically where I grew up. In order to do so, I decided to dive into this colonial history, which is a big part of how Europe functions and how Western Europeans relate to the rest of the world.

Filmmaker: It’s a very big leap between doing something that has a somewhat personal perspective of the place where you are originally from to this new area that you didn’t really have a lot of familiarity with. What made you think that your second feature was the time to explore this?

Sendijarević: I think a lot of people thought that Take Me Somewhere Nice was a small film, but it wasn’t. It was a personal film, for sure, but it wasn’t autobiographical. The plot is more symbolic than anything. I don’t have anything specific against autofiction, by the way. I would love to dive into the genre sometime—and maybe I already did so a little bit with my short film Import. But the reception of the film was very much on that autobiographical level. The difficulty was that I wanted to put certain thoughts and ideas into the mouths of my characters, and I did have a fear that the characters would be viewed as me. I didn’t feel enough freedom there. So that’s why I thought, “Okay, with the next film, maybe I can choose an environment that’s a bit further off from me.” I thought there would be less confusion there. Also, one of the best films about colonial oppression in Algeria is made by an Italian director; two of the best films about American society are made by a Danish director. Just because I experienced a violent personal history doesn’t mean that my only [filmmaking] topic can be the Bosnian War and refugee life. To give myself the freedom to be a filmmaker and choose the elements that inspire me, instead of only looking at my personal past, was liberating.

Filmmaker: That makes a lot of sense. As an aside, I think that it’s very easy for people to foist that “autobiographical” perspective upon women creatives far more than they do for men.

Sendijarević: Yeah, it feels like male directors, especially white male directors, have choices. They can pick any topic and use any character that they want. Female directors can only choose [to portray] her own autobiography and the female characters within it. I wanted to break free from that.

Filmmaker: You’ve worked with cinematographer Emo Weemhoff on both of your features. How has your collaboration helped shape your already distinct cinematic eye?

Sendijarević: I also made my short film, Import, with Emo, which was the first attempt to find a certain kind of humor in the visual language, using vignettes and also 4×3. We made that film in 2016, which was kind of before the [recent] wave of absurdist films about the positions of minorities or exploited characters, so to say. Trying to escape this victimizing viewpoint is something that we were thinking and talking about a lot during the making of Import, which was kind of a long process even though it was a short film. I think it [served as] a starting point that both Take Me Somewhere Niceand Sweet Dreams evolved from.

I love the kind of cinema that [tells you everything] through images, where every frame is like a painting and tells you its own story aside from the dialogue or the plot. That’s what I’m attracted to, so it’s what I try to make, as well. We tried to look at what visual inspiration we could use for [Sweet Dreams], specifically paintings made by Henri Rousseau, an impressionist painter from France around that time. We were really interested in primitive art, and Rousseau would paint all of these childlike, very colorful images of the tropics. They were, in a way, colonial paintings. Sometimes Europeans would be in the paintings, sometimes they would have this exoticized viewpoint—which was also a bit awkward, in a way, because he never left France, so it all comes from his imagination. I thought there was tension there. For example, sometimes we would make the sets look very simplified: colorful, childlike tableau inspired by his paintings.

Filmmaker: Speaking of shooting, I’m also interested in knowing about how you approached filming both of your movies abroad. Of course, you have Bosnian heritage that connects you to the location of your feature debut, but for Sweet Dreams, you ended up having to shoot on Reunion Island in Africa due to an Indonesian COVID outbreak.

Sendijarević: I mean, I would love to make a film one time just in my backyard or something [laughs]. I don’t even have a backyard, so maybe my bedroom or whatever. Shooting far away with a film crew that you take with you, there’s always some complexity there, of course. In this case, I traveled through Indonesia for a total of five months for research and the writing process. I traveled alone for a while, with several guides, just to get to know the country. At the beginning of the writing process, I knew very little about the whole history of Indonesia. I’d never been there, so it was clear to me that the first phase [of the project] would be doing a lot of research until I felt like I could make this film. Of course, I felt a lot of pressure and anxiety over how I would do this, because what do I know? But filmmaking can give you this opportunity. It’s not only about telling what you know. It’s also a chance to get to know more about something and then put that in a film.

In Indonesia, we did the casting and were about to shoot there. In the end, we had to relocate because of COVID. Shooting on Reunion Island felt like meeting in the middle [for Dutch and Indonesian crew], which was good for the film because it felt like a blank page. Reunion itself, of course, has this colonial history with France, so there were a lot of parallels. Colonial history is world history. It’s never an isolated relationship between two countries, it’s a dynamic that happens on a world scale.

We actually found that there was a lot of recognition from the Reunion Island team. They understood immediately what this was about, as sugar plantations are also very present there. We hopefully created something that can transcend this very particular Dutch-Indonesian story into something more universal. So that was actually very beneficial, also because the film takes a surrealist approach, and I wanted to underline this idea of symbolism and working with archetypes. In this case, shooting on Reunion Island was fine, because we didn’t need a specific building from a specific time. We just needed a lot of nature and a big villa.

Filmmaker: So much of the film feels entrenched in that specific time period. How much was recreated in terms of being faithful to period while enhancing the surrealist aspect that you’re describing?

Sendijarević: It was clear to me that I wanted the film to be a mirror to the here and now. I wanted it to feel like a film from 2024. I wasn’t so interested in how it exactly was back then and that was never a reason to make decisions. Like, “Oh, let’s make it as authentic as possible.” I wasn’t interested in that at all, but you do need a starting point. Sometimes that would be what was available in those times. For example, when we were looking at [the characters’] hair, it was interesting to do research and find so many crazy hairstyles. Sometimes period films make things more boring than they were. Because photography was already invented, we could see a lot of pictures from those times and they would be very exciting and therefore inspirational. There are some pictures that we actually recreated within the film. For example, when Cornelius is in the factory and all the workers are sitting on the floor bare-chested and he stands there in white overalls. It’s such an idiotic image, in a way. It’s almost too obvious and the kind of image that I wouldn’t necessarily come up with because I would think it’s too simple or straightforward. But this was literally a picture that we found. You see it exists, then it’s like, “Okay, we can use it.” That happened on several occasions, where we made a recreation of things that already existed.

Another thing we found were pictures of a dead tiger, because there was this obsession with tiger hunting during those times, which I also found in a lot of Dutch colonial literature. I also found an Indonesian writer who reflected on the same topic, which was really interesting to read. In a certain sense, the Dutch actually won a lot of respect from the locals because they were able to kill the tiger with weapons that they brought. If you can kill a tiger, which is the highest animal in the hierarchy, then you are higher than the tiger in a way, or at least that’s how the literature described it. There were a lot of pictures of tigers at parties, so we took that from reality.

Filmmaker: I’m also curious about how music has informed your work, particularly with your two features. The title of Sweet Dreams evokes the iconic Eurythmics/Annie Lennox song of the same name, and the film itself features a striking orchestral score. Of course, there’s also the amazing, diegetic Sonic Youth song in Take Me Somewhere Nice.

Sendijarević: I love music for sure. I think it’s maybe the highest art form. I love the Eurythmics song “Sweet Dreams” a lot. [The title] is not a reference to the song, and I was hoping it wouldn’t be tied too much to the song. That song stands so much on its own, and this film can’t really be a part of that, you know? I was hoping to get away with the title without too much hanging on the song, but the title refers to so many layers in the film so I couldn’t really get rid of it, either. But I love the song, so it’s fine if people think of it.

Unfortunately, I cannot make music. I’m just an admirer of people who can. I love working with composers, and I was lucky enough to work with two great composers [on Take Me Somewhere Nice and Sweet Dreams]. Working with a composer is such an intuitive process and you really have to speak the same language. You don’t even use language when you refer to certain atmospheres and feelings. If that doesn’t work on an intuitive level, then it’s not going to work.

On Sweet Dreams, specifically, Martial [Foe] is an autodidact composer. He would not follow a lot of the rules you learn in school about how to do things. He made a lot of music for the film. Actually, because we had not that many shooting days, we had to move very quickly, and we decided to use music to get us in a certain mood. What happens when you are very stressed during shooting days is that there’s a danger that you’ll just follow the rules of “one plus one equals two.” If you have to make a decision in the moment, it’s going to be the answer that makes the most sense. But it’s not about making sense when you’re making a film, it’s about finding a different layer. When you’re in a hurry, that’s hard to do. One way for us to do that was to use music that Martial made. He finished the music before the start of our shoot. At five o’clock in the morning on our way to shooting locations, we would listen to his music and it gave us a boost of energy. What happens when you listen to music before a take—for example, when you have a shot where a character just comes into the room and walks towards the table—you suddenly understand the world that you’re trying to evoke. Otherwise, it’s just going to be a person walking to a table, you know?

So we used music a lot during the shoot, then of course the first version of the score had to be thrown away [and re-worked], but it served as a starting point and it worked on set.

Filmmaker: I don’t think I’ve really heard of a composer assisting on a shoot like that.

Sendijarević: He was there during the shoot because we had so much diegetic music that he composed. We also had this band coming from Indonesia that needed to rehearse. He was a big part of the shoot, actually.

Filmmaker: Are you able to divulge any details about The Possessed, your next feature, which was presented at this year’s Rotterdam CineMart?

Sendijarević: I think that it is, again, a very European film. I was thinking about this a few weeks ago, and in my head [my first three films] are almost like a trilogy. So this will be the last part of my European trilogy. I’m writing the film now in Paris, actually, as part of a writing residency. I’m in the middle of it and it’s taking me to some places, but it’s also kind of hard to talk about in that sense.

Filmmaker: I heard that you recently signed to Black Bear’s management arm. Can you speak about that decision and what drew you to the company? I also assume that this means you’ll work on U.S. projects in the near future.

Sendijarević: For now, I’m really focused on The Possessed, but we are going to work with an international cast, so this might be something that [Black Bear] is able to help with. I was approached by them and we had a very nice conversation, so I made that decision intuitively. I felt a connection and their enthusiasm for what I was trying to do. Let’s see where that brings me next.

Filmmaker: Since we’re speaking ahead of your Metrograph series, can you speak to why you specifically chose Apocalypse Now: Final Cut and The Cremator to accompany your own features?

Sendijarević: The Cremator and Apocalypse Now are specifically inspirations for Sweet Dreams and less so for Take Me Somewhere Nice, I would say. The Cremator was very important during the filmmaking process. This is a topic that is not tackled as much in Western European cinema. Colonial dynamics are not talked about as much in Dutch society. In Europe, we’re in a different place [when it comes to] talking about these topics compared to the U.S., for example. Finding this weird-comedic [tone] was a combination that was sometimes hard to make in my head, but I felt intuitively that this should be the direction. I remember stumbling upon The Cremator during the writing process, and it became a very important foundation because that film showed me that it is possible to make a comedy about fascism. The point would become much more tangible, the stupidity of what was going on. There’s also a sense of mocking, which I thought worked really, really well. It was kind of empowering to watch that film. It’s enjoyable to watch, too, which is not a word you usually tie to films of this topic. Every time that I felt desperate or thought I couldn’t pull it off, rewatching this film helped me see that it was possible.

Apocalypse Now, of course, is about American imperialism. I saw it for the first and only time in film school, and there was one scene where they visit this French family that still lives in this kind of colonial delusion. They’re all dressed in white and are [mentally] mad. That scene specifically stuck with me, and during film school I thought that it would be interesting to make a film about them, but perhaps a Dutch family in Indonesia. I haven’t rewatched it since film school, so I look forward to revisiting the film now.

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