Scales film review: exquisitely crafted and fiercely feminist

Saudi filmmaker Shahad Ameen’s debut feature Scales toys with fantasy in surprising ways

This exquisitely crafted and fiercely feminist debut feature from Saudi filmmaker Shahad Ameen toys with the fantasy genre in surprising ways. Shot on location in Oman the young filmmaker uses the natural surroundings of the sea, shore and rocky terrain of a Gulf fishing village to hypnotic ends. Pairing surreal and tactile visual effects with a story about sacrifice and mermaids Ameen strikes an eerie ambience.

At the start of the film, a father plunges his first-born baby daughter into the depths of the ocean as part of a ritual that the male head of the village has deemed will bring feast to their famine. The father rushes back and picks her up from the sea bed but not before she is touched by a mysterious ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ style scaly hand. The quick glimpses of what lies beneath are both creepy and beguiling.

Fast forward to twelve years later and the father has now been outcast as a coward, with his daughter Hayat despised by all around her, including her mother for what she represents. Ameen uses creative magical realism to pick apart oppressive attitudes towards women. The mythical sea creatures are hunted for their flesh which the inhabitants devour with a resigned sadness. There’s no joy on the island and Ameen uses images of barbed wire to depict a caged existence.

She furthers the narrative by awarding Hayat with great power. After she captures a tasty morsel for the village, she enters a male dominated world, where hunter gatherers struggle to make sense of their existence aboard a fishing boat. The blame for the lack of food shifts to Hayat with superstition and sexism taking hold.

Scales, at times, feels like a tense, black and white Val Lewton production as it casts its net over a patriarchal society that doesn’t value women or offer them equality. It’s an impressive if repetitive yarn that marks Ameen out as a filmmaker with a potent visual style as she sets sail through restless waters and offers hope through rebellion. She is definitely one to watch.