Just like her heroine, writer / director Shahad Ameen breaks out of the male-dominated Saudi film industry and shapes her own path and she certainly does it in style. Her debut feature “Scales” (Sayidat Al-Bahr) follows the 2013 short movie “Eye & Mermaid” that was presented at the film festivals in Dubai, Toronto, and Stockholm and it’s the base concept that has been expanded in “Scales”. The film had its World premiere in Critics’ Week at the Venice International Film Festival.
Once upon a time … in a fictional island, in a fictional era, a small fishing village believes that giving the first-born daughters to the sea to feed some monstrous mermaid-like creatures that inhabit the ocean, will keep the beasts quiet and away from threatening the village.
The film opens at night with this cruel ritual; men on a torchlit beach walk in the water to drown their own daughters. A young father, Muthana (Yaqoub Alfarhan) is hesitant; he must do it – this is the tradition – but he can’t let go of his daughter and at the last minute he saves her. 12 years later, the girl Hayat (Basima Hajjar) is the shame of the village. She is considered the cause of the village bad luck when out fishing and the cause of the drought, and her father is bullied as a coward. Nevertheless, despite having escaped death as a baby, Hayat is still not safe, her fate is waiting for her and when her mother Aisha (Fatima Al Taei) gives birth to a baby boy, she is due to be sacrificed.
However, Hayat doesn’t accept the rules of the elders and she challenges death once again showing she can instead kill the monsters that terrorize the village. Finally accepted into the man circle for her hunting skills, she cannot hide some silvery scales that are growing on her skin, implying she could be going through a metamorphosis.
Reminiscent of “One Thousand and One Nights” with echoes of Greek Tragedies, and informed by Arabic folklore, “Scales” is a strong feminist metaphor of empowerment and self-affirmation. The visual elegance is one of the best assets of the movie that was shot in a barren stretch of the Oman coastline in a soft black and white. The dry, rocky location and the photography of DoP João Ribeiro with its lyric contrasts between dark shadows and blinding lights contribute to build up a creepy out-of-this-world atmosphere, in striking contrast with the blossoming femininity of the young protagonist. She is flesh, hair, sweat and tears against the cracked hard desert, the dusty land and traditions that patriarchs have kept unchanged for centuries without even questioning why.
Shahad Ameen shows a strong will to scream out the message and a bold confidence in her visual style and direction; however a certain lack of complexity and articulation in the core narrative makes it feel inevitably like an extended short film. In fact, after the initial intriguing build-up and the rich mythological premise, the story falls a bit flat in the second half as if it had run out of steam, and goes on with a relentless solemnity that can become tiresome. Maybe would have benefited from some parallel plots.
The presence of little Basima Hajjar, who had starred also in “Eye & Mermaid”, is the pulsing heart of the movie and the talented actress displays strength and determination with flare while embodying – physically and allegorically – the volatile age of metamorphosis of a woman’s body.
“Scale” is indeed a stylish and sophisticated work from an author with a unique vision and a strong, far-reaching voice. Beside the amazing achievement for women’s representation in the UAE and Saudi film Industry, Shahad Ameen has also accomplished the personal goal of a remarkable first feature.