Review: SCALES, A Fable of Sea Monsters in a Hostile Land
The most beautiful moonlight I've ever seen was in Sinai. I was at a small camp not far from Dahab, but far enough and so far from any large human settlement that there was no light pollution. It was a full moon night, and the silver light shone against the mountains, the sea, and the mountains across, the coast of Saudi Arabia. Sitting under this light in silence, one would have no doubts of the terrible beauty of the landscape, barren in vegetation but rich in stories, and sea monsters lurking in the deep.
Shahad Ameen's feature debut Scales is a stark and haunting fable, a Middle Eastern fairy tale that feels both ancient and timeless, a parable about the roles of men and women and the wrath of the earth and the sea. A harsh climate and a harsh community are antagonists to a young girl whose defiance will challenge a long-held and gruesome tradition.
In an island populated only by humans, the community has practiced a ritual for as long as anyone can remember: every family must give one of their daughters to the sea monster. This, apparently, ensures the continues catch for the fisherman, and the village's only food source. But one father just cannot part with his baby girl; after hearing her cry after he drops her in the water, he rushes back and rescues her, just as the sea monster has the baby's foot in her clutches. Hayat is considered bad luck, and her father ostracized for his moment of 'weakness'.
But now, teenaged Hayat (a mesmerizing Baseema Hajjar), also ostracized and with a strange foot covered in fishy scales, and perhaps because of these things, sees how she, and the girls and women are treated. They are servants and fodder, while the boys are revered. Using her strange powers, she successfully hunts one of the sea monsters that keep their village trapped, and brings the food for the village; though while she is allowed to sleep in the boys' encampment and go on the fishing boat, she is still seen as something of the enemy, a piece of bad luck, or good, if she works hard enough. But it doesn't matter, because as a girl, nothing she does will ever satisfy.
The world of the film is as beautiful as it is bleak; you can imagine how a people, in a place with little natural vegetation and no wildlife, might themselves become so hardened and intractable. Even with black and white, Director of Photography João Ribeiro evokes the shadows, the grey between the starkness. While the themes of patriarchy, oppression, and the consequences of such brutality live in the black and white, the subtleties of family relationships, Hayat's relationship with her overseer/mentor Amer (Ashraf Barhom), and more importantly, her relationship with the land and the sea, live in these shadows, and sometimes in the stark light of sun and moon.
What dialogue there is, is as sparse as plant life: no one wastes precious energy, which means Hayat must search for her own answers. The secret of their food source, a secret which is both open and never spoken of, to the audience will be shocking and a dismay. Hayat knows the truth, everyone does, and yet, even as her scaly feet touch the water that is both her home and her harm, she seeks an answer that the village will likely never accept.
At times, it feels a little like the story is going in a circle; but such is the repetitive nature of life in this place, with little distraction, and it seems, little community spirit beyond women at the bottom, men at the top, and the need to surivve. Hayat's presence is a constant reminder of how that oppresion of women is doing them more harm than good, and yet, they refuse to end this cycle that will take them to oblivion. Hayat searches the shores looking for an asnwer; one minute she is revered, the next she is reviled. Her skills (and scales) set her apart, part of the sea and the land, and that danger makes her beautiful and terrible.
Scales is the kind of fable not often seen in cinema (at least outside of its region), steeped in the culture of the Middle East, one that looks to the juxtapositions of the fertile sea and the barren land, and confronts the evils of the present with an eye to a dystopian world.
Scales will be released in cinemas in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, July 9th, and additional cities shortly.