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Shahad Ameen’s "Scales", a breathtaking fable set in an imagined desolate island village, is Saudi Arabia’s fourth submission ever for the Oscars. The film tells the story of a young woman, Hayat, who defies gender roles and expectations, she and her father having refused to submit to a cruel tradition in which each family offers one daughter to the menacing sea.
Ameen used black-and-white imagery, vivid storytelling, and the constant soundtrack of the unforgiving ocean to create a story that is akin to Arabic poetry. That was her intention, alongside her wish to put forth a distinctly Saudi visual culture. Whitewall spoke with the filmmaker about telling the tale of Hayat, and more.
WHITEWALL: With “Scales” you’ve said you wanted to create a conversation around gender and gender roles. Why did you want to tell that through a fable and a metaphor?
SHAHAD AMEEN: To be honest, it all happened by coincidence. We did a short, and I thought this idea deserves a feature; it deserves more digging deep. I felt it was the first time I had such a personal story without having to be very personal and very direct. I went deep into the heart of what I’m trying to say just by using visuals and metaphors. And I have to say that just doing something magical and of fantasy is always exciting and different because you can tap into not just questions from our present day or questions from present drama, but eternal questions, and eternal myth. You can tap into the environment and connect it to other things. It gave me the possibility of being creative and also allowed me to play with the images and try and challenge myself in telling a story in a very visual way. It made me focus on Hayat and her journey with her body and her journey accepting a body that she feels betrayed her somehow and rebelled against her somehow. For me that was the heart of the film.
WW: And as a viewer, given that it’s set in a timeless place, it opens up entry points to relate to or see yourself in Hayat.
SA: Or how you view yourself when you are part of a society that believes in absolute truth. That was something I really wanted to talk about. Because it’s the journey of everyone. I was from Saudi, I lived abroad when I graduated from high school, and you don’t think it’s going to have a culture shock, but it does sink in later on. You start realizing, “Maybe my truth is not the ultimate truth. I’m not the only one.”
WW: How did making the film in black-and-white help you tell the story more effectively?
SA: It gave it this timeless quality and made it feel like it doesn’t age. From an aesthetic point of view, it was that it really gave the story that dryness that I wanted because anything else with color was giving us a very bright and very beautiful colors, and that wasn’t the point. It gave it this mythological, fable-like quality.
WW: You’ve said you wanted the film to represent a visual culture that is lacking from Saudi, and that you wanted it to feel like Arabic poetry. What was your vision for that visual culture?
SA: I wanted the film to have my voice, to have it be original, and have it be coming from an Arabic voice, a Saudi voice. I felt that’s the only way it can work because there is a lack of it in the world. There are few films coming out of Saudi, and anything coming from here is so strange and weird and unique because it’s new and people haven’t seen it before. I trusted in that and the idea that I can make something out of the things that I love, and I love poetry. That’s what my thinking process is, and sometimes writing. I wanted it to relate back to the poetry I like where they see a lot of metaphor and imagery. One of the compliments that makes me happiest is when Arab critics come up to me and say, “It feels like this poem.” When I have people telling me it feels like that, I’m so happy.