A fantasy film produced by a company in Abu Dhabi is Saudi Arabia’s official entry for the 2021 Academy Awards.
Written and directed by Shahad Ameen and produced by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, Scales tells the story of Hayat, a girl living in a village that sacrifices female children to mysterious creatures living in the sea. When it's her turn to be sacrificed, she defies tradition and rebels against her family.
Emirati actress Fatima Al Taei plays the intriguing role of Hayat’s mother, Aisha, who pushes for her daughter to be sacrificed.
Born and raised in Abu Dhabi, Al Taei rose to fame as the protagonist in legal drama Justice, the first Emirati TV series to stream globally on Netflix.
As the first Emirati actress to star in a film submitted for the Oscars, Al Taei says it was "an honour" to appear in Scales.
"The movie is going to be part of history. I wish that it is also a part of the future and encourages more actors and filmmakers here in the UAE, in Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf countries to produce films that can compete in the Oscars," she tells The National.
"The film talks about the changing roles of women in society from the time Hayat is born, from the challenges she faces to expectations she has from the society and her family. Each woman in the movie goes through a different struggle and conveys powerful emotions."
The black-and-white film was shot in 2019 in a village in Musandam, Oman, though the location and time period Scales is set in is not explicitly stated in the finished work.
"We have Saudi accents but we don’t portray a particular country. It takes place in an atmosphere of fantasy and dystopia," Al Taei says.
With its emotionally complex plot, the film explores the roles of women in the Arab world and beyond. Al Taei's character, for instance, struggles after her husband decides not to sacrifice their daughter.
"Aisha gets blamed by society for not following tradition and for being different from other women in the island. She begins to feel isolated and people dislike her for a decision she didn’t make," the actress says. "It goes to show what happens in real life – for instance, a mother takes the blame for anything that their kids do.
"Aisha is cruel to her daughter and keeps projecting all her anger towards her. She would do anything to sacrifice her in order to be the best woman and mother in the eyes of society.
"Even in real life, we always want people around us to be proud of us and in that process, we stop ourselves from doing what we want."
Scales had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in 2019 and won Best Film in the Asian feature competition at the 2019 Singapore International Film Festival. It was screened in cinemas across Saudi Arabia in November. An international release is expected in 2021.
"I believe this film gives an honest picture of Arab women. It doesn’t show everything as rosy but talks about both joys and challenges in Aisha's life," says Al Taei.
"It takes a lot of courage to make a feminist movie such as Scales and I believe director Shahad Ameen has done a commendable job."