Movie Reviews

Diving Deep: Shahad Ameen on the Feminist Folkore of Her Directorial Debut, Scales

In the dystopian world of “Scales,” a woman’s body is not her own.

Instead, it is merely a sacrificial vessel to serve the purposes of the village’s male leaders. Here, it is tradition that every family must sacrifice a daughter to the sea maidens, mermaid-like creatures, so they can continue fishing. However, these men are not just catching any fish; they are hunting the very sea maidens they worship. Caught in this vicious cycle is Hayat (Basima Hajjar) whose father saved her from being sacrificed. As a result, she is shunned by her village and her body is never her own. Instead, she is seen merely as a walking curse rather than a human being. As scales begin to appear on her feet, Hayat begins a journey to understand who she really is and how she can finally reclaim her bodily autonomy.

Marking the feature debut of writer/director Shahad Ameen, “Scales” mixes the legend of the mermaid with Arabic folklore to tell a story that mirrors her own experiences growing up in Saudi Arabia. Using magical realism, a stark monochromatic palette, and sparse dialogue, “Scales” is more than just another tale of a girl growing a tail. It is a story about a young woman fighting with herself about who or what she is supposed to be.

Ameen spoke to RogerEbert.com about the power of the mermaid, subverting fantasy tropes, working with young talent, and more.

Diving Deep: Shahad Ameen on the Feminist Folkore of Her Directorial Debut, Scales

What was your inspiration for “Scales”? Where did this story come from?

So I’ve been working on “Scales” for a lot of years now, but not just “Scales,” because I had a short film before, also in the world of mermaids. So the idea came to me years ago. Really, I was just writing in these diaries and I was like, “what are mermaids?” Then I went and did a bit of research, then I thought of using the idea of a mermaid to symbolize Arab women who are chosen, the women who are chosen to be free yet are isolated.

From there, the story came to be, and I wrote the short film where a young girl watches her father fishing, bringing her these beautiful black pearls, and she doesn’t know where they come from. One day she follows him around with his fisherman buddies and she sees him plucking the pearl out of the mermaid, and she sees him chopping the mermaid in half. She sees him doing something that horrible to a creature that looks exactly like her, and that changes her entire perception of her father.

The idea of the feature came to be because I felt that in the short film, there was this missed opportunity to tell a story of Hayat and her journey with herself. I wanted to use her body and the changes that are going on with her body as a metaphor. I wanted her to be the enemy of herself rather than the father. It’s the story of a girl finding peace with a body that they, society, told her was forbidden, and society had taught her a lot about it that is wrong. She has to unlearn what they’ve taught her to understand who she is.

The film was shot in color and then, in post-production, was changed to black and white. Can you tell me more about that decision and why you ultimately landed on having this film monochromatic rather than in full color?

Well, one of the main reasons is that the colors weren’t giving us the timeless quality that we want. When we switched it to black and white, it really gave us a timeless quality. For me personally, I really liked that it highlights the contrast between the men and women, between the dry land and the water. The whole world was really brought up much deeper in the black and white.

Basima Hajjar, the young girl who plays Hayat, is so incredible. What was it like working with her to pull out this really strong performance without using a lot of dialogue?

So I’ve known [Basima] since she was six. She acted in my short film “Leila’s Window” and I fell in love with her. So when we went into production for “Scales,” when I wrote “Scales,” it was obviously for her. And so there wasn’t any casting happening or anything. From the beginning, it was going to be Basima. She and I have such a close relationship and I feel she’s so similar sometimes to me. I’m also very close with her parents, so that made everything easier for both of us to trust each other.

But with Basima, she’s such a natural. I mean, one of the things that frustrates me the most is when people act, and Basima doesn’t act, she just inhabits the situation. She remembers a situation from her own life, and from that, she has the energy to act out Hayat. That was the main attraction in working with Basima. She was so worried about the crying scene from the beginning for two months before the shoot. Basima, in real life, is such a strong girl and she doesn’t like to show her vulnerability. So for her to cry in front of people, it’s not something that she does.

So we brought in this actor coach, and he said, “Don’t worry. I’ll break her.” He came and he coached not just her, but some of the other girls. He played this game with them, to make you cry. It’s a horrible game, I know. He did the game [with Basima], and she just refused [to cry], like flat out refused. The acting coach was worried she might not be able to do it. Then just a day before the shoot, Basima and I went on a walk. I said, “I trust you. The whole team trusts you. You have to bring out the performance.”

We went to the set, and everyone was so worried. It was just me and [the cinematographer] and her on set. We started rolling, and she’s just pretending to cry. I yelled, “Basima, I trusted you.” As soon as I said that, she just started weeping.

Just after she did this scene, she became a different person. She was so proud of herself. She felt in control of her emotions. She can cry whenever she wants to. She can be happy whenever she wants to. What I love the most about this story is that you can see that in her performance. You can see that from the beginning to the end, how she became so much more sure of herself. It just so happened that we did the scene, and literally her performance changed dramatically. She felt that she’s now a professional actress.

Diving Deep: Shahad Ameen on the Feminist Folkore of Her Directorial Debut, Scales

The mermaid is, especially in horror, so often about a young woman changing. But here, the stakes are higher with her transformation. So why did you choose mermaids? What about that creature really stuck with you to the point that you wanted to write multiple films about it?

Before I talk about mermaids, I’m a big fan of the fantasy genre and a big fan of anything that has magical realism or fantasy. One of the things that frustrates me about the fantasy genre is it’s so predictable. I know where it’s going, I know the steps, and I know what the hero is going to go through. That was what I didn’t want. I wanted to challenge what I can do visually without dialogue in such a genre. As for mermaids, really, I never thought I would write a film about mermaids, to be honest. But the symbolism was so great for me that it was very hard not to explore the story.

I really wanted to tell the story of a girl whose own body is rebelling against her. I don’t like to be obvious about things, and I wanted it to be very raw at the same time, very personal to my experience. There was no other way to do it, except through this genre and through the symbolic changes that are happening to Hayat’s body. I’m one of the girls who used to be called tomboy and all of those things. So a big point of it is you have this problem with yourself and think, “Am I wrong? Are they right?” I wanted that to be in Hayat’s story. I wanted for her to reject this body, reject this power that she has as if she doesn’t have it, until she has to go through a journey where she understands that she truly belongs in the water and she can truly find her freedom there.

It was a really fascinating dynamic in this film, about having to sacrifice, but then the sacrifices are eaten. I wanted to hear more about that dynamic that you created between the village and the sea maidens, and where that came from for you in writing this really unique kind of perspective on the mermaid?

Whenever I was thinking of the story, I was always trying to bring back experiences from my own life, as crazy as that sounds. But I like to bring up values and feelings from my own life. I remember the stories we heard as kids. When I was building the world, I remembered a story that used to resonate with me. We studied religion in school and there’s a verse in the Quran about the girl who was buried alive. In pre-Islamic Arabia, families used to bury girls alive out of shame, out of the possibility that they might get older and bring them shame, or they don’t have money to raise them. So they buried them alive. It was from there that the story [for “Scales”] came. I always thought that, yes physically, it feels like we stopped burying girls alive, but emotionally and figuratively, we really didn’t.

Whenever you feel rejected from society, your first instinct is to ask yourself, “Why, and how can I be accepted within that society?,” never thinking that they might be wrong. So the immediate thought is that you are wrong, and that’s what Hayat goes through. She keeps rejecting who she is until she unlearns what society has taught her, about herself and her body, to find and to understand its power.

“Scales” is now playing in select theaters.

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