While inspired by the story of the Syrian goddess Atargatis, "the first mermaid," who is considered a symbol of fertility and life of the water, filmmaker Shahad Ameen set about writing a script about coming to terms with being a woman -- a woman in the Arab world and more specifically in her society in Saudi Arabia, and not the contemporary Saudi we know these days where women drive and movie-watching audiences consume Hollywood entertainment. The Saudi of the late 90s, early 2000s.
In her director's statement for the film that came out of that journey, her debut feature Scales, Ameen explains that as a child, she learned quickly enough that she wasn't part of the top gender in Saudi society, but actually was looked down upon for being a girl. When she started writing her "feminist parable," as Scales has been described by critics and movie-watching audiences, Ameen explains that she was "unlearning a lot of what I thought was the truth -- I was accepting the feminine and the masculine aspects of who I am without judgment. When I finally decided to look at my life as an individual, it was simple to see the unjust, the wrong we tell ourselves is right."
The result of Ameen's self-explorations and efforts is a beautiful film that keeps growing, at first adored by audiences, then multi-awarded at festivals around the world, and now released in the US by Variance Films. Scales was also Saudi Arabia's official entry to the 2021 Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film.
MIME's Editor in Chief Mark Adams reviewed the film, and I cherished catching with Ameen who is,much like her leading character Hayat, a force of nature.
Scales opens at the IFC Center in NYC and the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on July 9.
How do you feel about presenting the film in the US, although you won’t be on the ground?
You know not being there I have to do these awkward “hi, welcome to the film” through video, so for sure I’d like it more if it was in person, it's always more exciting like that. Definitely I would rather have it in real life — you know in real life you're part of the excitement, you're part of the energy of the festival but right now I'm in my room, I'm in writing mode and taking all these interviews and meetings… I know you, so wth you it's not awkward but meeting people for the first time, it's awkward! Zoom is one of the most awkward things ever, and I'm going through the most awkward meetings.
Do you find it also provides you with a sort of sanctuary or do you only feel the negative aspects of life of Zoom?
Listen for sure I'm so lucky that I had this last year because coincidentally just before the pandemic hit, I started to work on a series. It’s a long writing process and it was so nice to get the time to just write. So I liked the idea of khalas, just thinking about the story that I'm writing and just thinking about the past — it was really appropriate for what the world was experiencing.
So you were able to concentrate more, during this time?
Yeah yeah. On the downside I really don't know how to talk to people anymore!
None of us do. Shahad... What is the series that you’re working on? Can you disclose a little about this upcoming project?
I’m working as a writer on a series by Mohamed al Daradji, who was executive producer of Scales. It’s historic and takes place after World War I and covers a time in Arab history that hasn’t been covered a lot before. I’m enjoying revisiting the past and learning a lot about the history of the Arab world and how the new Arab states came to be but also how the consequences of what happened back then, we still carry to this day. It’s a very important show and I’m glad to be part of it.
The wonderful tagline that everybody uses when they're describing your film is “feminist parable, set in a dystopian future.” Do you ever get tired of being put in that box?
No, listen it’s so funny because I thought about it a lot. I hear a lot of people, a lot of Saudis, a lot of Arabs saying, OMG aren’t we done with films about women? About the treatment of women, aren't we done? At first you get shocked you think, maybe it is a lot, and then I think to myself, why would we be done with films about the treatment of women, if the treatment of women continues to be bad! Like, think about it, why are there all these films about women? Well, take a hint, how about that. Maybe there's an issue in the society and there are all these films… But their argument is these are the films that appeal to the west.
And the West has a problem with women’s films as well though!
It’s so funny that I keep thinking about those, you know, extremist group -- whether they're white or religious I think they will get along so well! They both hate women so much. I always wonder why they’re arguing so much because if they were to sit and talk their values would really match one another! So it doesn't bother me just because sometimes I get upset about people saying oh we're doing stuff to appeal to the West. That definitely makes me very angry just because obviously we're not and if you understand the basic of making a film, at least for myself, it was always about discovering something about me, it was always about me diving into my own experiences. It's a very selfish way I know, of looking at the world but unfortunately most artists or storytellers sometimes, they see the world through their eyes -- through this individualistic glance. So for me it was always about talking about my experience, and it wasn't easy at all.
I'm not the kind of person who likes sharing a lot and I'm not the kind of person who likes showing my vulnerability. I was challenging myself when I made Scales, I was being honest with myself before anyone else, and I really put my heart into what we're seeing on screen. And for that to be considered, you know, just wanting to appeal to the West or for that to be considered, a common movie about women because that's a hot subject right now is definitely sometimes frustrating. But I never get angry of the film being labeled feminist because it is a feminist film! It's actually one of the most beautiful labels for it because you know, most people are feminists but they're embarrassed to say it. And most people when you explain to them feminism, they're like yeah I believe in that, but I don't like the word. The problem is with the word not the meaning. So for me, I love the label.
I remember you telling me that your father has always been a feminist. How does he feel about your film going to the West and being watched by US audiences?
My father is not well right now. But he would have been so happy and so proud. I have five sisters, we are six including me. And for his generation, you know, he was incredible because my father is also an older father. So we grew up in a completely different generation from him. He grew up in Saudi when they had no electricity, in Medina, in a very small city, and for him to be a feminist and he had such strong statements — like he really didn't like the veil, he was against the veil, most people would think that a normal Saudi father is someone who forces their daughters to wear veils. My father did the opposite.
Your film is about a community that realizes that, after humanity has taken advantage of the environment, they need to somehow sacrifise, give something back and and I'm oversimplifying it of course, but does your film affect you in a different way since we've gone into this pandemic mode?
If I was to be honest, I don’t know if I was thinking of a pandemic but when I wanted to tell a story of a girl, of Hayat, I wanted to also tell a very spiritual story. You know I wanted to tell a story where everything is connected, where what you give is what you will take. And in a way that concept is not familiar, maybe in the Middle East because you know we're more into a rewards and punishment kind of thing. But I wanted to tell the story that everything is connected and everything is spiritual, and I wanted the ending to be that spiritual, that she is herself part of nature.
And has the way that you yourself look at your film changed after the pandemic?
I don't think so.
If you were to make Scales today would it be the same film?
I think it will always be the same film, maybe some changes here and there but I wanted to tell a story that is one journey. I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of Hayat herself. I wanted this film not to have so many subplots. I wanted it to be between a girl and herself. I mean for me, one of the most important aspects of of Scales is not the story of society, it's not the story of a girl overcoming prejudices from her society. It's the story of a girl overcoming her inner problems, it's the story of Hayat and herself, Hayat and her body and its connection to the world around her. And for me that was the most important thing, Hayat's connection to everybody and the connection to the world around her, rather than her overcoming the adversities in her society.
What do you hope audiences in the US will take away from the film?
So I think, especially in Saudi, they're very much influenced by American cinema, and I think that’s the way they think of movies in general — they're not even aware that other genres exist. I’m glad that the film in the US will open in selected theaters, so it's going to be for a selected crowd anyways. But to be honest, I'm excited about the normal American audiences going. I kind of feel sorry for the people going into the film expecting to see this big sci-fi film or like big like horror genre movie fans and then entering and finding this poetic cinema -- but I'm excited! I really would have loved to be there just to see what their reaction will be because I feel that the film can go anywhere. You know, in America they're fanatics about genre, there is this niche audience. And I feel they will go in expecting one thing and they will get something completely different. It’s not going to reach the expectation, it is going to be something else but I'm sure they're gonna enjoy it, and I’m sure they're going to be aware of the visual language that we try to use in the film, and I'm sure that they're going to enjoy the visual story and the visual journey.
Do you feel like you're a little bit of an ambassador for your country, as well? Because this is something probably that will blow their minds — here's this Saudi woman who talks about a Saudi girl and makes a film that is “a feminist parable..."
To be honest, I've been very proud lately, because the Ministry of Information and Culture in Saudi have shown me so much love, and they've stated that they're very proud of my work, that has reached international borders and they’re very proud for it to represent Saudi. And that makes me proud of my country because for them to say a feminist film will represent us in the Oscars, it means there's change -- and obvious change. It’s one of the proudest moments because it's not just about the film but it's the fact that there is something that is changing in our society.
As we said before, everyone is afraid — even Americans and Europeans — are afraid of the word feminist. So for the Saudi Ministry of Culture, to come out and say we're not afraid of the label “feminist” then we'll take this film and we will take the challenge. A lot of people in Saudi are complaining “Why choose this film?” [for the Oscars] They didn't care because they know where they're heading, and they know where our society is heading, and that makes me feel so happy, and it makes me feel very hopeful for the future.