The Saudi Arabian submission for the 93rd Academy Awards presents itself as a modest but movingly well-crafted story about a little girl and her desire to be more than her village wants her to be. Director Shahad Ameen, a Jeddah-born filmmaker with multiple short film accolades under her belt, took the themes she began to explore in her competition-selected short for the Toronto International Film Festival, Eye & Mermaid, and developed them into what became Scales. The fantastical story moves at a leisurely pace, even for a 75-minute film, but expands far past the initial predicament Hayat finds herself in and is a worthwhile addition to the emerging canon of cinematic fairy tale retellings.
Every full moon in a poor folkloric fishing community, baby girls are sacrificed to the sea and the so-called monsters that lurk beneath. Only one girl has ever survived; Hayat (Basima Hajjar), the child with scales on her feet from her close encounter with the creatures of the deep before her father spared her the fate of the other girls. For this crime, twelve years later they live as outcasts. But when Hayat’s mother gives birth to a baby boy, the patriarchal community decides Hayat must be returned to the water she was destined for years ago. Only this time, Hayat has grown up and is ready to rewrite the story history had ready for her.
Ameen’s striking visual sensibility brings to mind The Juniper Tree, Nietzchka Keene’s 1990 Icelandic fairy tale film starring a young Björk; the isolated narrative focus, the use of black and white cinematography to create a feeling of bleak loneliness, and the enigmatic and poignant performance by a young woman at its centre. The camera closely frames Hayat against visceral textures in the background, then leaps out into great wide shots that marvel at the wonders of the ethereal natural world – even the shots that feel a little too staged, a little too theatrical, with highly exaggerated symbolism of status through height, feel nostalgic and draw on inspirations of the past (both of cinema and bounteous collections of folkloric and cultural history) masterfully.
The rediscovery of women’s humanity is a common theme in these revised fairy tales of the 20th and 21st centuries. Mermaid tales, especially, are ripe grounds for feminist reinterpretation as the original stories were often concerned with women’s shame and the symbolism of punishment for desire (something palpable in Ameen’s film). The first known mermaid tale comes from Assyria around 1000BC, where a woman inadvertently kills her male lover and throws herself into the sea to hide her shame. She becomes a fish, but her immortal beauty cannot be hidden even beneath the waves. Scales itself was inspired by the story of the very ‘first mermaid,’ Atargatis, a northern Syrian deity of fertility and protection of her people, whom Ameen saw as the perfect symbol for the untamed woman.
Something that feminist reinterpretations often overlook when using the magical realist medium is that they are not automatically granted easy outs and resolutions because of the fantastical realm they place themselves in; the dystopian world of Scales is far from idyllic even before you get to the dark tradition of sacrificing babies. Thus, to truly achieve worthwhile meaning, Ameen puts patience into building up her commentary; Hayat begins by rejecting her femininity and trying to recreate the masculinity of the boys around her to gain respect but realises that succeeding in this way still leaves her as merely an ‘inferior’ version. After encountering the supernatural female mermaids, however, she discovers that if the world does not have a place for her, she will have to make one for herself – and perhaps heal the harm done by those before her while she’s at it. And thanks to the liminal space offered by fairy tales, she can do just that.
Not only does Scales conjure a beautiful fairy tale, but its concluding sequences echoes images of myth; as Hayat is finally able to put her connection to the sea at rest (both literally and symbolically), the girls gathered around her burial parallels Antigone’s rebellious act of burying her brother against the orders of the new King of Thebes in Sophocles’ play. Thus, with her visual metaphors and the staggering conclusion to her tale, Ameen not only gives us a stunning Middle Eastern fairy tale, but steps into the realms of timeless myth and society-shaping legend.
Scales opens Friday 9th July in New York and Los Angeles, with rollout to follow
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.