SCALES Is a Sharp Critique of Patriarchy Gracefully Told Through the Mystique of a Fable4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
A fishing community believes that sacrificing a daughter from every family will appease the sea creatures for good harvest. Hayat, saved from this ritual by her father 12 years ago, lives in shame among the villagers who believe she has cursed them. Determined to prove them wrong, Hayat hunts for the monsters to carve out her own path.
Director: Shahad Ameen
Cast: Basima Hajjar, Yagoub Alfarhan, Abdulaziz Shtian, Ibrahim Al-Hasawi, Rida Ismail
Country: UAE, Iraq, Saudi Arabia
Runtime: 74 minutes
In my interview with Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap hours before the announcement of this year’s Best Asian Feature Film Award at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), the jury head gushed about a film he recently saw by a fresh film graduate from Saudi Arabia. He was inspired by the creativity behind the film in tackling its theme and how the film was made in a comparatively more limiting society to his own.
It didn’t occur to me during the interview that Anurag was alluding to Scales, the eventual winner of the award. The debut feature of Saudi filmmaker Shahad Ameen is a powerful critique of the damaging effects of patriarchy in her country weaved between the fascinating mysticism of a fable.
Scales takes place on a desolate island without fertile soil surrounded by a dead sea. Its small village relies on hunting mermaids as their source of food, believing that their harvest will only come if each family sacrifices a daughter to the seas. 12-year-old Hayat (Basima Hajjar), once saved from her fate by her father (Yaqoub Alfarhan), is shunned by the village for rebelling against tradition. The advent of her baby brother forces Hayat to the shores once again, with the choice to either accept herself as a sacrifice or find a way to escape.
Hayat does live to see another day, but still she cannot escape from the growing scales on her feet, implying that her fate as a mermaid is merely delayed. Daughters being seen as a detriment in most male-dominated societies is taken quite literally in Scales, but the film never relegates itself into an in-your-face critique of its subject matter.
Every shot is drenched in gorgeous monochrome that never blisters as much as it softens the atmosphere. Long shadows and silhouettes cast on the island’s monumental ridges and expansive shorelines give the film an almost otherworldly feel, which is only heightened by the sparse, minimalistic score.
The gentleness felt in the cinematography resonates in how Scales tackles its critique of patriarchy. The village patriarchs continuing the brutal sacrificial tradition are far from mustache twirling villains; they share a sense of hopelessness as if there is no other way, all painfully and exquisitely captured by the cast of first-timers. Scales acknowledges that the issue is systemic and handles the theme with grace.
However, even despite the film’s brief runtime, Scales still does feel sluggish when not much is going on plot wise – what does happen plot wise is abstract and hard to attach to. Yet the film’s spectacular visuals never failed to grab me back in.
Amidst the mesmerizing visuals, the heart of the film lies in Hajjar’s debut performance as Hayat. She starts out hiding in the corners of the frame with vulnerability behind her wide eyes, lending weight to the occasional scenes of mermaid brutality. As her confidence grows, she starts taking centre frame and those same eyes become a source of strength and hope for change. Her emotional growth and journey, told through a solid performance, is a key part of my enjoyment of the film.
While the difficulties Ameen had to overcome to even get Scales made – especially when it critiques the society’s systemic issues – deserves celebration, this should not overshadow its achievements as a work of art. The film stands on its own for its lush cinematography, the breakout performance from a largely cast of unknowns, and the poise to engage its theme in such a creative way.
Watch the trailer below: