The film Scales opens on the moonlit shores of a barren rocky beach. We see a group of men walking with fiery torches toward murky water. With them are their daughters — some are babies, others young girls — and drummers, wailing while they play a slow trance-inducing beat. When they get to the sea, the fathers wade in. Standing in waist-high waters, they ceremoniously drop their children in and solemnly walk back to the shore.
It’s all part of a grisly tradition: If the villagers want to eat, each family must abandon one daughter to the ghoulish mermaid creatures swimming just off their shores. Their sacrifice guarantees a good catch for their fisherman.
As the children’s cries are submerged, the father (Yagoub Alfarhan) of the film’s central character, Hayat (Basima Hajjar), panics and runs back into the water to pull his daughter out. It’s a move that changes the course of Hayat’s life. “She grows up hated in this village, an outcast because her family refused to follow the village tradition,” explains the 32-year-old Saudi Arabian writer and director of the film, Shahad Ameen.
Shooting on location in the Persian Gulf
The black-and-white, 75-minute movie, which recently made its American debut, was Saudi Arabia’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards. It was shot on location in Khasab, Oman, an exclave that borders the United Arab Emirates and the shores of the Strait of Hormuz. The country’s rocky, burnt orange mountains were an ideal backdrop for a film where the markers of today, like a high-rise or cell phone, were intentionally left out.
“The story of men versus women — Hayat and her story — happens in every generation,” said Ameen. “It happened a hundred years ago. It’s still happening today. It happened a thousand years ago. It will happen a hundred years in the future. So, I didn’t want to specify a time or even a place. I wanted it to be a village lost in time and space.”
A new generation of Saudi filmmakers
Filmmaking is still a nascent industry in Saudi Arabia. But for Scales producer Rula Nasser, who has worked on films in the Middle East for over a decade, the movie spotlights a bold female voice that is part of the next generation of Saudi filmmakers. “It’s a very daring story for the kind of productions that are happening in Saudi,” said Nasser. “It’s breaking a lot of boundaries.”