How 'Scales' Director Made a Mermaid Fantasy About Body Positivity

“It was the story of her accepting this body that society considers a source of shame and oppression,” Shahad Ameen says of Saudi Arabia’s Oscar entry

One of Saudi Arabian director Shahad Ameen’s first films was “Eye & Mermaid,” a short about a girl who learns that her father’s job is to hunt and slaughter mermaids. It was a story about the fractured relationship between a father and daughter, but for her new film “Scales,” Ameen felt there was a missed opportunity in exploring more about the girl.

“Scales” is Saudi Arabia’s submission to the Best International Feature race at the Oscars. The film is shot in a timeless black and white with an eye toward mythology about a girl named Hayat, who lives in a poor fishing village where families sacrifice one daughter to mermaids in the sea, leading to the fishermen to retaliate by hunting them. Hayat however was spared from this fate and lives as an outcast, and Ameen wanted to explore how this custom could affect someone’s self-esteem.

“It was the story of her accepting this body that society considers a source of shame and oppression,” Ameen told Steve Pond as part of TheWrap’s Awards and International Screening Series on Friday. “When society tells you to hate the body that your in or that your body is lesser, you discard it. You say I don’t like being a girl until you have to unlearn a lot of things that they’ve told you about yourself, about your body and who you are.”

Ameen said her fascination with mermaids came when she imagined the image of a girl seeing a mermaid being chopped in half and what could come of that. And though there are plenty of Arabic myths with dark undertones of their own, Ameen created the symbolism in “Scales” to modernize the story.

“Most of the mythology I’ve created around symbolism so i can hold a mirror toward present-day society,” she said. “It was not about the mythology itself but about what it represented. It was about the metaphor that it brought to the screen.”

Of course it’s no coincidence that it’s young girls who are oppressed in this fantastical society, drawing a parallel to a patriarchal Saudi Arabian culture. Ameen said that in pre-Islamic Arabia, people used to bury young girls alive, and in writing “Scales,” she recalled a story she learned as a child about a girl who wiped sand out of her father’s beard as she was being buried alive. That story resonated with her deeply and made her take a hard look at her society’s own customs.

“I feel I’m someone who used to defend everything that my culture [did]. I used to take everything as a given. Why do I have to criticize my culture? I used to bend over backwards to try and protect it, kind of like Hayat does in her own journey,” Ameen said. “She tries to make her own rules in this world. But in the end you cannot make your own rules. Society wants to make their own rules and wants you to stay submissive to a kind of ideology. It was all about this girl making her own rules and breaking out of a society where she’s living in oppression.”

Fortunately for “Scales,” the film’s gorgeous black and white helped Ameen give the film an authentic Arabic look and tell her story visually about a girl finding peace with herself and her own body.

“With the black and white it definitely highlighted that this story is timeless and it can happen at any place at any time,” Ameen said.

Watch the full conversation with the director of “Scales” here and above.

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