Saudi director Shahad Ameen on her Venice debut: 'Any Arab who watches this will relate to it'

'This film needs to be told and it’s a story that needs to be heard. It's a great step forward,' Ameen tells us about 'Scales', her first feature film

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It may be a black-and-white art house film about an Arab tribe that  hunts mermaids for food, but Saudi Arabian director Shahad Ameen is adamant that audiences of her first feature film will find a piece of themselves in it.

"It's about how easy it is to accept a different reality, that life is more important than tradition," Ameen tells The National. "And that for me, human life matters more than anything else."

Ameen is in Jeddah, gearing up to premiere Sayidat Al Bahr (Scales) at the Venice Film Festival in a few days. Not only is the screening a huge milestone for the Arab world, but it's a big deal full stop.

Venice is one of the "big three" film festivals on the cinema calendar, and is also widely seen as a testing ground for future award-winning films. In recent years, films that have opened the festival have gone on to dominate nominations at the Academy Awards, as was the case with La La Land in 2016 and Gravity in 2013. Critically acclaimed films, including Roma and The Shape of Water, have also enjoyed debuts in Venice.

'Scales' director Shahab Ameen says she is 'excited and nervous' about her Venice debut. Image Nation Abu Dhabi 

So how does it feel to be debuting among such esteemed company?

"I’m excited and nervous ... it goes together," Ameen admits. "It’s very special. I’m happy for everyone who worked on the film. Everyone really believed in it, and that this film needs to be told and it’s a story that needs to be heard. It's a great step forward."

That great step forward is particularly poignant in the realm of regional cinema, Ameen says. After all, until she was 10 she had no idea the Arab world was even represented on screens. It was then that she stumbled across Syrian television series Al Kawaser, which got her far more excited than the Japanese anime or Hollywood blockbusters she was used to watching.

For the first time in a really long time I feel like people really are not afraid. We were just missing women in the streets – now they're out there, they're driving and riding their bikes.  It's changing in a beautiful way.

"It was the first time I had ever seen anyone represented like me on film. I thought if another Arab could be a filmmaker, maybe I could, too."

Until that point, Ameen had always wanted to become a writer. Instead, she thought she could perhaps combine the two, as a writer for television shows or films. It was then that her sister reminded her that writers didn't exactly get to call the shots.

"I wanted to be both, so I decided to become a writer-director," she says. "I started making period films when I was 10. We had these big playgrounds around our houses. We would write and shoot and act in them, it was so much fun."

Ameen then moved to London to study filmmaking, completed some work experience and then spent a year in New York studying screenwriting. All the while, she'd been creating short films – the eighth of which was her first big break.

Eye & Mermaid had its premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2013 and won Best Cinematography and Best Film from the Arab World at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival a year later. In 2015, Ameen's script for the longer feature was nominated for an IWC Filmmaker Award, which is when it first caught the eye of Ben Ross, Image Nation's chief content officer. And that's how Scales was born.

"When I was writing Eye & Mermaid I knew it was an idea for a feature. I started writing the script before [the short] premiered, I was writing for two years."

'Scales' is about a young girl, who was supposed to have been sacrificed to the sea, rejecting her fate and forging her own path. Image Nation Abu Dhabi 

The result was a masterpiece in cinematography, shot in Oman in black and white; and a film that is a metaphor in itself, offering a nuanced critique on the role of women in Middle Eastern society.

Scales is set in an unnamed dystopian village, in an unnamed country – a very  deliberate decision, Ameen says.

"We picked [Oman] because of the way the location looked, and it represented the film in the right way. But it's not an Omani film or a Saudi Arabian film ... it’s an Arabic film and I feel that any Arab who watches it will relate to it."

The film was shot near Khasab, a port city on northern Oman’s Musandam Peninsula, and used many of the town's locals as actors.

Filming took about three months, about a third of which was dedicated to shooting. In that time, Ameen says the film crew created a "community" within Khasab, and hopes her team has inspired some of the villagers to get into filmmaking themselves.

'Scales' was shot on location in Khasab, Oman. Image Nation Abu Dhabi 

The main trade of the tiny, fictional village in Scales is fishing, but this is not for your typical suppers; instead, seamen trawl for mermaid-like creatures for the villagers to eat. Children here are also sacrificed to the sea in a plea to the gods by villagers, hoping for  an end to the drought.

However, one young girl, Hayat, is saved from the tragic fate, and instead grows up attempting to break into the male-dominated hierarchy by any means necessary, even if that means killing one of the mermaids.

I'm always going to write from the perspective of being female … my work will always reflect that, whether I like it or not. But I don't believe cinema is male or female

There are almost Cinderella-like parallels to the story, which opens with Hayat being shunned by her family for being an unwanted female who was supposed to be sacrificed. But Hayat rewrites her destiny, becoming the only girl allowed to fish for the village, and proving herself to be more useful than even the men.

Hayat is played by Saudi Arabian actress Basima Hajjar, who also starred in Leila's Window and Eye & Mermaid.

That theme of female empowerment isn't exactly central to Ameen's ethos, and she doesn't set out to write it into her films, but it's certainly seeped into much of her work. Leila's Window, her 2011 short film, provided a first taste of this, and was when Ameen believes "I first found my voice".

"I do believe I'm a storyteller first. I try to write what I know ... this being about a woman just came because I am a woman.

"I'm always going to write from the perspective of being female … my work will always reflect that, whether I like it or not. But I don't believe cinema is male or female."
Scales is visually stunning, thanks to the remote Omani backdrop, but it wasn't always going to be presented in black and white. This was a decision made in post-production  that initially proved a hard pill to swallow for the director.

"The location is very nice and to get rid of all that beauty was kind of hard for me – but when we switched I believed in the film more ... it made you focus on the film more than when you did when you were distracted by all that beauty."

In the end, Venice isn't just a showcase for Ameen, it's a showcase for Image Nation Abu Dhabi and the UAE's filmmaking capabilities. Chairman Mohamed Al Mubarak has previously spoken about his unabashed belief in the film, telling The National last month: "This is a strong story, this is a story of empowerment, this is a cultural story, an artistic story, and when you put all that together we felt a movie like this hasn't been made in this part of the world.

"It was also linked with a young Saudi director; it’s her first fully fledged feature. Yes, we knew it was going to be a lot of work but it’s a very different type of movie.”

So then, if Scales is a metaphor for societal expectations in the Arab world, what for Saudi Arabia? After all, Ameen's homeland has gone through a rapid succession of changes in the last 12 months; changes that are set to continue as the kingdom continues to open itself up to the world.

That change, Ameen says, has brought colour to Saudi Arabia. And despite her recent adoptions of monochromatic filmmaking, no one is prouder of that than Ameen.

"The city is colourful again. When the other half is contributing it finally feels like a city," she says.

"For the first time in a really long time I feel like people really are not afraid. We were just missing women in the streets – now they’re out there, they're driving and riding their bikes.

"It’s changing in a beautiful way."