Saudi Arabian writer-director Shahad Ameen’s debut film ‘Scales’ took a lot of risks — it filmed in black and white, is set in a remote fishing village in the Middle East and featured minimal dialogue.
The film also dabbled with fantasy elements, depicting pre-teen protagonist Hayat, who defies her village’s painful tradition of sacrificing girls to monstrous creatures in the sea to create her own path.
The risks have paid off. ‘Scales’, currently showing at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival, won the prestigious Verona Film Club Award at the 76th Venice International Film Festival last month. There, the Image Nation Abu Dhabi-produced feature screened within the Critics’ Week Competition.
“When we decided to make ‘Scales’, we all knew that we had a good script — but that was the scary part, ruining a good script,” Ameen tells tabloid!.
“Getting the acceptance from Venice and getting the award is just a great feeling, because it’s a very new film. It’s not the usual [kind] — it’s very visual, very different than what we’re used to seeing… I’m just very happy that people in Venice got that it’s a symbolic story, rather than just what they’re seeing on the screen.”
The filmmaker considers the film to be a universal one, something that can transcend the small geographical borders its set in and reach regional and global viewers. At its core, it’s “not really just an Arabic story,” but a coming-of-age tale that that both men and women can relate to, she adds.
“A lot of men feel isolated, maybe, when they watch the film. But in reality, Hayat is this character that we can all relate to — any outcast in the world, anyone who felt misplaced or out of place will relate to her,” says Ameen.
“The film is really about the sanctity of life. It starts with this father yelling out for his daughter, Hayat, which means ‘life’ in Arabic, and then it also ends with that. It’s this repetitive theme in the film, where we keep calling for life,” she explains.
But what made Ameen want or need to tell this particular story?
“I keep thinking if maybe I was a bit older when I wrote the story, I wouldn’t have challenged myself to make something that difficult,” she says.
“But I was very, very happy that I wrote the story and that I told it as honestly as I could possibly do, about my experience being an Arab girl, my experience in society through my eyes, in a way, and how it feels to be the second-class citizen in a society.
“It really took me a lot, as Shahad, to get to a point where I’m comfortable being a woman, and I needed to tell that story, where Hayat goes through that journey and becomes comfortable with who she is as a person, with her body, with everything around her,” she adds.
The artistically shot film utilised folklore and fantasy influences to tell its story, as Ameen pulled inspiration from a rich pool of Arab poetry.
“I didn’t want to copy anything from a Western perspective — I really wanted the story to be authentically Arabic,” she says.
“Given that I’m a big fan of Arabic poetry and I feel that Arabic poetry is very symbolic to the world around us, I wanted to apply this in the film. When you see it, you’ll see how poetically visual it is. It resembles a poem, in a way.”
Copying a Western perspective — or taking an originally English script and translating it into a less-than-believable Arabic — is a criticism that often gets lobbed at regional filmmakers. Ameen finds that there are deeper issues at play.
“It feels we have this kind of identity crisis going on. We speak in English and Arabic, but I’m someone who grew up in like a fully Arabic-speaking house. I appreciated Arabic music, Arabic history. So, I’m someone fully Arabic; I didn’t go to an American school, or anything like that, you know?” says Ameen, with a laugh.
“For me that was a big part of who I am. It’s my identity. I was never ashamed of it. This is the scary part of being a filmmaker; [feeling] ashamed of your Arab identity or, like, the slowness of the Arabic culture or the heritage. You cannot, I think, tell your stories when you yourself have not established a full-on identity and respect for your identity and your experiences in life,” she expands.
‘Scales’ set up in Oman for three months, shooting across 33 days. However, the film has been six years in the making. Ameen wrote the script in 2013 and had to establish a connection at her chosen location.
“There was a whole process of going up and down that location for months, maybe a year. We found that location, [then went through] establishing a connection in that community, and then going up there and shooting,” she recalls.
Shooting on water was one of the most difficult parts of the process — “I shouldn’t recommend it to other filmmakers, but I would, just because it’s so much fun and challenging at the same time,” she says — but almost losing her lead actress, Basima Hajjar, who was 12 years old at the time, was a more pressing issue.
“It was my nightmare. Two weeks into shoot, [Basima’s] exams got pushed I think because of Ramadan. Her parents were like, ‘We have to send her back to her exams!’ Every day it was phone calls, I begged the principal to keep her — she said no. We had to go a different route, but we kept her. For the first few weeks, even Basima knew that she might get pulled out of set, so that was one of the biggest worries I had,” says Ameen.
Ameen and Hajjar haved work together on three projects in total now, as the two have a special collaborative bond.
“I just absolutely adored Basima. I met her very early on, when she was very young. I hadn’t met any Saudi girl at that time who’s an actress who had her personality, who had her charms,” says Ameen. “Basima doesn’t need a lot of direction, just because she’s very reactive to things around her and her eyes speak a lot. It’s wonderful to work with her.”
As for whether or not ‘Scales’ will have a theatrical release, Ameen says she is focused on continuing their festival circuit (the film is currently part of the BFI London Festival, which ends on October 13) and would love to see ‘Scales’ screen at the first ever Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, which takes place in March of next year.
“I’m from Jeddah so I would love to screen my film in Jeddah. My family and friends are all here and I’m good friends with the Red Sea people, so we would love to. We’ll see what happens. But as for me, I would love to have my film screen in Jeddah, anywhere,” says Ameen.
She began writing the script for ‘Scales’ long before her home country lifted a 35-year ban on cinemas in Saudi Arabia.
“The hope is that we keep making films,” she says now. “Before [when] we didn’t have cinemas, we were making films. Whether there is cinema or not, we should just focus on ourselves and telling stories.”