A magical feminist fable that relishes its links to Arabic folklore and poetry, Saudi writer-director Shahad Ameen’s striking feature debut Scales (Sayidat al bahr) – which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 in Critics Week – is a confident and memorable new film from a young filmmaker with a real sense of her voice and vision.
The film sees Ameen expanding her 2013 short Eye & Mermaid, drawing on the ancient Syrian legend of the sea goddess Atargatis, though this Saudi Arabia-Iraq-UAE co-production was actually shot in Oman.
Shot in lustrous monochrome, the film is set against the backdrop of an old-fashioned fishing village where a dark and strange tradition means that each family has to sacrifice a baby daughter to the mermaid-like creatures that live in the ocean. But when Muthanaha (Yaqoub Alfarhan) opts to save his daughter Hayat from the creatures it brings shame on the family and a curse on the village.
Some 13 years later and Hayat (15 year-old newcomer Baseema Hajjar) lives like an outsider in her own community and always under threat, with things getting even more complex when her mother Aisha (Fatima Al Taei) gives birth to a baby boy. In a bid to strike out for herself, Hayat decides to prove herself by hunting down the creatures who have kept the village living in fear for generations.
But her plan is complicated by the fact that fish-like scales are slowly creeping up Hayat’s legs, implying that she is slowly transforming into the very mermaid creature that she is pursing.
With its beautiful vistas; brooding score by Mike and Fabien Kourtzer and a sensual, poetical, atmosphere, it is given a real sense of heart thanks to the striking lead performance by Baseema Hajjar. Impressive directorial newcomer Shahad Ameen keeps things admirably tight and gently mesmerising, and bodes well for her future and for the emerging group of women filmmakers from Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, 2109, 74mins
Dir/scr: Shahad Ameen
Production: Image Nation Abu Dhabi, Iraqi Independent FilmCentral, The Imaginarium
International sales: Cinetic (U.S.), AGC (world)
Producers: R. Paul Miller, Stephen Strachan, Rula Nasser
Cinematography: João Ribeiro
Editors: Shahnaz Dulaimy, Ali Salloum, Ewa Johansson-Lind
Music: Fabien Kourtzer, Mike Kourtzer
Main cast: Baseema Hajjar, Ashraf Barhoum, Yagoub Al Farhan,Fatima Al Taei, Haifa AlAgha, Hafssa Faisal