Scales, the directorial debut of Saudi Arabian director, Shahad Ameen has created waves across film festivals since its launch. Scales was released at the Venice Film Festival in October 2019, as part of the Critics’ Week competition, where it received the Verona Film Club Award, selected by a jury of 30 members.
Hot on the heels of its world premiere Ameen is travelling the world picking up accolades along the way, most recently winning the Jury Award — Best Film, Critics Award — Best Film and Director Award — Best Director at the Rabat International Author Film Festival.
Speaking exclusively to Digital Studio Middle East from the Morocco-based film festival Ameen defines her directorial debut. “Scales is about a young girl name Hayat, who lives on an isolated island. The film starts with a sacrifice — usually the men sacrifice their young daughters to the sea — and one of them who happens to be Hayat’s father hesitates. The moment he puts her in the water she becomes different, and his love for his daughter instantly stops him from going through with it. He gets Hayat back in the boat and takes her back to the village,” she says.
The story unravels from there and following the incident, Hayat and her father become outcasts because they do not conform to social norms. “In the society Hayat is considered different since she’s been touched by the water and is changing into a sea creature, she starts hating on the fact that she might possibly become one. She tries to find ways for society to accept her as one of their own and goes through a whole journey thereafter where she tries to find peace with her body that’s constantly changing, finding peace with the water and in a way bridging the gap between the men on the island and the sea creatures in the water,” Ameen reveals.
The film is not set in any particular country, and Ameen has used her love for visual cinema to tell the tale. “I did not want the film to be Saudi-based... in the initial drafts the dialogues were in classical Arabic. I then felt it was a bit too heavy and old fashioned. I gave it an accent to modernise it, but in reality it is written for the Arab world given I’ve always loved classical Arabic. But it didn’t work because I wanted to stress that the events in the film happen in this day and age, and not something that’s happened several years ago.
“I tend to stay away from dialogue in my films just because I feel it’s overused in the Middle East. I wanted to tell an honest story where the character goes on a journey, and not just one about female empowerment,” Ameen says.
She says the similarities between Hayat refusing the changes to her body are similar to the changes a woman goes through in adulthood.
“A lot of things change in your body that you refuse, and it takes a while to get used to the new body and understand its power. I wanted to tell the story from the inside out rather than the other way around. People build up a perception about the film but it ends up completely different once they watch it. The film has been described as a long poem at the film festivals,” says the Saudi national.
The choice to render the film in black and white wasn’t one that was planned from the outset. The film was shot in colour, but Ameen felt the beauty of the destination and its colours were stealing focus from the true meaning of the screenplay.
“Initially we didn’t take all the colours out because we were apprehensive of going black and white. Eventually we tried it, and the results were incredible, the location turned into no man’s land. It also gave the feeling of division between men and women,” Ameen says.
João Ribeiro was the cinematographer of Scales, his previous film also ended up being rendered in black and white. “João normally thinks in black and white, and he shot in both picture and black and white. It’s a funny co-incidence,” says Ameen.
Image Nation Abu Dhabi
Scales is an Image Nation Abu Dhabi production, and Ameen feels privileged to have a reputed production company backing her in her debut venture. It all started a few years ago after Ameen won two awards at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
“I told them that I had my own script, they immediately jumped on-board to produce the film. Image Nation has supported me from the beginning, since 2015. You don’t get an opportunity where someone decides to fund your project in its entirety. It was fantastic, especially since the project was outside their comfort zone, it isn’t the sort of film they normally do.
“I was a bit apprehensive about it as well but Image Nation acknowledged that the movie would be more of a ‘festival piece’ rather than what they normally do. It was smooth sailing from the beginning because all parties knew what they were getting into. We need more companies like Image Nation, and I’m so glad that Scales is doing well because it will give Image Nation a push to fund more films such as mine, outside of their comfort zone. Simultaneously, this will push more filmmakers to work on such projects.”
There are no concrete plans of a theatrical release but Ameen is hoping for some development in that area to take place soon.
“I was never made to feel that the film would need to be a commercial success. Image Nation trusted me with the film and I trusted them with the story. I did, however, feel pressure to get the film right, and get everyone working with me to understand what I was going for. It all came together in the end. It can get intense in the run-up to the release because you don’t know how a film will be perceived. Everything said and done I’m happy with the result.
Khaleeji film renaissance
Ameen started making films at the age of 10. She drew motivation from classical Arabic serials that helped her relate. “They not only spoke Arabic but the actors looked like me and that made me think I could follow in their footsteps. After finishing school I studied cinema and decided to take a more visual method to storytelling. In Scales I put everything I knew about building the suspense around a frame into practice,” she reveals.
Prior to working on Scales, Ameen’s debut short film — Iron Mermaid — was a relatively big production which had 100 people working on it.
The 14-minute long short also featured Basima Hajjar, the lead who played Hayat in Scales. Ameen says: “It wasn’t the same story and was based on the modern day. Although different to scales, the same concept was the same.
Speaking about the Khaleeji Film Industry, Ameen says it’s in the infancy stage as only a handful of films are released every year.
The only way to move forward is to keep making movies. “It’s happening... it’s just the beginning and we have to keep making more films. I believe that it will take more than just one film to change the industry — some films can take a huge leap forward. Screening movies at large festivals will help the industry of that particular country move forward — similar to what’s happening with Scales at the moment,” Ameen tells DS ME.
Just like any other skill, Ameen says film schools play an important part in the formative years of budding filmmakers. “People feel that a ‘director’ and ‘producer’ are the only two jobs that exist. It takes a while to understand the whole puzzle especially if you haven’t been to film school, playing around with the camera can be really hard. By the end of third year of film school things become a lot clear and you might end up becoming an editor instead of a director because you’re more skilled in it.”
There are no shortcuts in the process of becoming a filmmaker. Ameen says film schools are in need of well-qualified heads of departments with some sort of Khaleeji background. “I believe that is going to happen over the next 10 years. The bottom line is people need to be exposed to more life in general (and everything else will follow),” she says.
“The biggest problem we have, at least in Saudi Arabia, is that we suffer from an identity crisis. In a way it’s a pan-Arab problem. A filmmaker cannot have an identity crisis, we need to be clear and honest about who we are. The biggest challenge we will have in the coming years is creating an identity,” Ameen reveals.
The region can take inspiration from Persian cinema which carved out a distinct identity according to Ameen. “We have to work on a cinema which is purely Arabic. We have some of the greatest story tellers in the world based in this region. The Quran is filled with beautifully told stories, we have to draw from our history to tell our story through film. That’s where our identity will come from,” she notes.
With the opening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia, a change is on the cards. “An action film that works in Hollywood will not work in Saudi Arabia. We have to be proud of who we are, accepting the negative and positive aspects that comes with being an Arab. Egypt is one of those places that had a clearly defined identity and then lost it. Let’s re-establish it,” says Ameen.
Born in Jeddah to a Syrian mother and a Saudi father, Ameen is proud to be pan-Arab and all the sub-cultures that are associated with it.
She says “I love pan-Arab cinema, sure it depends on your story and which place you are in. For instance, a production in Dubai should have at least two nationalities from the Arab world. It’s part of our new culture.”
At the age of 31, Ameen has made the world sit up and take notice, as a woman filmaker from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia she will play a crucial part in shaping the Khaleeji film industry.
In conclusion, she reveals her plans for the future. “I want to tell stories that are honest, which might sound cliché but I want to make films with a clear identity.”