Scales is an undeniably distinctive film, but one that doesn’t quite feel fully conceived or executed.
Saudi Arabian director Shahad Ameen’s Scales was notable in the fall of 2019 for being one of the oddest films to play at that year’s London Film Festival. A black-and-white, folklorish drama set in Oman, the film 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. To the degree that this low-budget cultural curio succeeds, it’s on the strength of its unique aesthetic style. But while boasting impressive visual design, Scales fails to sufficiently develop its fabulist conceit, missing opportunities to discuss the wider implications of this upheaval of tradition — it doesn’t offer any perspective at all on Hayat’s parents and siblings.
Eventually, the pronounced lack of dialogue in Ameen’s largely visual approach to storytelling becomes a glaring, frustrating weakness. With echoes of a film like Whale Rider (2003), Scales confronts notions of tradition and delves into the importance of (culturally specific) custom-breaking, though it’s unrelentingly somber in its depiction of a quiet, meditative moment of transition for this secular group — hardly a rabble-rousing descendant of that film. Ameen fails to champion Hayat as a catalyst for change, while the protagonist also isn’t developed enough for viewers to fully appreciate her journey; in other words, both the macro and micro of her story are given short shrift. Instead, the focus — however aloof and impersonal — is on the inability of those around her to process this change. At only 75 minutes, and given the myriad hiccups of execution, it’s not surprising that Scales feels underdeveloped and slight, but it at least possesses enough distinctive elements to suggest that its filmmaker might have something greater up her sleeve in the future.
Originally published as part of London Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 3.