Shahad Ameen's 'Scales', a Feminist Allegory with a Fairy Tale Feel

A girl reaches up
Basima Hajjar as HAYAT in SCALES

Scales sweeps the viewer away with an immersive tale of a society that views women as collateral damage and one brave girl who defies the norm and chooses her own destiny. Using breathtaking black-and-white imagery and spare dialogue, director and writer Shahad Ameen paints an unforgettable story with a feminist message and a fairy tale feel.

In a barren island landscape seemingly outside of time, each family sacrifices a daughter to the sea to appease the sea maidens. One fateful moonlit night, the town butcher Muthanah (Yagoub Alfarhan) loses his nerve, rescuing his baby daughter Hayat from drowning only moments after he drops her in the water. For the islanders, his choice marks him as a coward and makes Hayat an object of hatred. Now, 12 years later, Hayat (Basima Hajjar) lives as the town pariah. Ostracized by the women and girls in town and unable to work the hunting and fishing jobs that the boys do, Hayat is kept locked in a closet most of the day, out of sight. When she does enter the room, people talk about her in third person and refuse to look at her. Further marking her as an outsider, she's plagued with an uncomfortable skin rash one the foot that was grabbed from the water that fateful night -- a rash that looks like scales.

Hayat longs for the day when she can rejoin her family as a respectable daughter, but when the villagers try once again to give her to the sea, Hayat risks everything to write her own story and find a place where she can belong in her town. As she takes each brave step, she begins to change the people around her, and they see her in a new light.

A girl stands by the water
Basima Hajjar as HAYAT in SCALES

In Hayat, Shahad Ameen creates a most intriguing character. She doesn't fit in with the women or the boys, even when she's among them. Her scaly appendage connects her to the sea maidens. Although never spelled out, she feels drawn to these aquatic nymphs and often draws near the water. She fears the water yet seems to feel a comfort there. And no wonder, the sea is where the rejected girls go. One of the many open-ended questions throughout remains where the sea maidens come from and what happens to the young women whose families discard them so easily.

Ameen partners with production designer Martin Sullivan to create a fully immersive experience. From the beginning, the story exemplifies the concept "show; don't tell." The brief intertitles explaining the tradition of female sacrifice are the lone example of exposition. Characters reveal their motives, dreams, and thoughts primarily through body language and facial expressions. Both Hajjar as Hayat and Alfarham as Muthanah convey endless depths of emotion through their eyes alone.

Filmed on location in the Musandam Peninsula of the UAE, the setting captures the raw and natural energy of the rugged coastline and the people who dwell within. The story spares no moment with unnecessary details or "pretty" shots. Yet, the camera often rests for a moment, creating a strong sense of place. We see the torch lights reflected in the waters, and the moon lighting the way for Hayat to find home. The villagers wear rustic and homespun attire (costumes by Hamada Atallah) that could be worn in any time and place where function matters more than beauty. Ameen chooses a black-and-white color palette, further casting a fairy tale feel and bringing out the desolate state of the land.

A girl stands by the water
Basima Hajjar as HAYAT in SCALES

The sound design by Olivier Laurent amplifies the desolate landscape and sets a haunting atmosphere. Generous use of silence allows the few sounds that arise to make a powerful impact. The sounds made by the sea maidens sound much like whale songs recorded by cetologists. And these rise over the sounds of the waves and of the drums played by the villagers during their ceremonies.

While most of the characters don't spend much time on screen, save Hayat and her father, Muthanah, Amer (Ashraf Barhom; the Kingdom) serves as a second father figure and counterpoint to Muthanah. Although the gentle Muthanah clearly loves his daughter, he feels some amount of shame towards her -- forever tainting their relationship. Amer, who serves as the head fisherman, however, looks Hayat right in the eye. It's the unsentimental Amer who ends up seeing Hayat's strength and, over time, grows in his esteem for her. Barhom's portrayal of Amer conveys this evolution slowly and in an authentic way.

Shahad Ameen makes bold yet effective choices in scripting, visual effects, and sound design. The film is a minimalist masterpiece, keeping the focus on what is essential. Although the story doesn't always flow and many questions are left unanswered, the story's allegorical nature allows for these gaps without losing story momentum. And like Hayat's pull to the waves, I felt myself drawn to Scales from beginning to end.

Final score: 4 out of 5

Release info: In limited theaters July 9, 2021

Movie poster for Scales