Saudi Arabian director Shahad Ameen’s Scales has to be a contender for one of the oddest films at this year’s festival. This black-and-white, folklorish drama set in Oman offers insight into a strange village custom which stipulates that a daughter in every family must be sacrificed to a mythical sea maiden. Scales revolves around a young girl named Hayat (Basima Hajjar), whose father could not go through with the act of sacrificing her as a baby. Twelve years later, the town elders insist the girl wade out to sea herself to finally be taken by the maiden, but she refuses to do so. While this low-budget cultural curio has a unique aesthetic style, it doesn’t sufficiently develop its concept, missing opportunities to discuss the wider implications of this upheaval of tradition. (The film doesn’t offer any perspective on Hayat’s parents and siblings.)
Eventually, the lack of dialogue in Ameen’s largely visual approach to storytelling becomes a frustrating weakness. Echoing films such as Whale Rider (2003), Scales delves into the importance of breaking free of custom, though it’s unrelentingly somber in its depiction of a quiet, meditative moment of transition for this secular group — hardly a positive, rabble-rousing descendant of that film. Ameen does not champion Hayat as a catalyst for change, and we don’t get enough of a connection with her to fully appreciate her journey. Instead, the focus — however aloof and impersonal — is on the inability of those around her to process this change. At only 75 minutes, Scales can’t help but feel underdeveloped and slight, although it does contain enough distinctive elements to suggest that its filmmaker might have something greater up her sleeve.
Published as part of London Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 3.