Reel Life: Flick Pix
A striking parable of Sometime, Somewhere, like Everywhere,
By Nora Lee Mandel
SCALES (SAYYEDAT AL-BAHR)
Written and Directed by Shahad Ameen
Produced by R. Paul Miller, Stephen Strachan, and Rula Nasser
Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq. 75 min. Not Rated
In Arabic with English subtitles
With: Basima Hajjar, Ashraf Barhoum, Yagoub AlFarhan, Fatima Al Taei ,Haifa AlAgha, Hafssa Faisal, Abdulaziz Shtian
Released by Variance Films in New York and Los Angeles theaters on July 9, 2021; national roll-out to follow
Seen in screenings of entries for Best International Feature Film at the 2021 Academy Awards representing Saudi Arabia
In timeless black-and-white, Scales may take place in some antediluvian past near the Aztecs, or a post-disaster future, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, or a colony on another planet from a Star Trek episode, or any place on this globe now where girls and women are subject to patriarchal, theocratic control. Writer/director Shahad Ameen didn’t have to look too far from her native Saudi Arabia to imagine such a society, and to the ancient Syrian deity Atargatis to find a mermaid-goddess for this community to appease by sacrificing a daughter from each family into the sea. (This powerful female seems to have lot in common with the Biblical legends of Lilith.)
In the night, the first sounds heard are the chants of a shaman, the sights a bonfire and torches, accompanied by drums. Then we see girls crying. A father, Muthanah (Saudi actor Yaqoub Alfarhan), puts his own baby into the sea, and immediately regrets his action. Mozambiquan cinematographer João Ribeiro makes the most of the confluence here of sea and desert in the first film made at this corner of Oman.
Twelve years later, that baby girl is now the pariah Hayat (the captivating Basima Hajjar was also Ameen’s Saudi muse for her earlier short films). She is shunned by other females who viciously support the communal ritual (like the grandmothers who enforce female genital mutilation): “This girl wasn’t supposed to be out of the water!” Her pregnant mother is afraid her husband’s choice will doom her new baby: “This child deserves to live!”
The fishermen bring the catch for all to cut up a share to eat - a large, very fishy mermaid. This explicit consumption of a helpless female is intentionally nauseatingly, cannibalistic. A society that oppresses its women eats itself.
Rejected by the women, Hayat wants to join the boys and men preparing to go out to fish. They make it clear that role is only for males, and she should give herself to the sea. At the full moon, her anguished father reluctantly leads her to the shore. Grabbing the hand of another girl, together they walk deeper into the water. But Hayat resists the undertow, crawls back at dawn, and even brings prey with her.
Her mysterious behavior convinces the charismatic leader Amer (Palestinian actor Ashraf Barhom, familiar from Tyrant on TV and commercial films) to teach her skills to be parallel to the very suspicious males. (She doesn’t hesitate to make him feel guilty about his daughter.) Preparing the nets and on the boat, she stays separate enough from them to hide that her body is changing; her puberty is developing scales. Her adaptation to the water is both painful to her and helpful to the community. Emboldened, she can now insist on change, for “another choice”.
Whether fans of sy fy, feminist “sheroes”, Middle Eastern culture, anthropological fables, or thoughtful striking-looking cinema, viewers can debate the actions, symbols, and even what happened at climactic points. But this debut feature won’t be easily forgotten.
July 9, 2021
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews
My reviews have appeared on: Film-Forward; FF2 Media; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
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