In a milestone for Arab cinema, a UAE-made, Saudi-directed magical realist film is set to have its world-wide premier at the Venice Film Festival next month as part of the Venice Critics’ Week competition, paving the way for Arab representation in mainstream cinema.
The film named Scales or Sayidat Al Bahr was written and directed by Shahad Ameen who is best known for her short film Eye & Mermaid which premiered at the Dubai Film Festival in 2013 and was nominated for Best Short Film at the Stockholm Film Festival.
Scales is set in a mythical Arabian past and tells the story of Hayat, a 13 year old girl mermaid living in a poor fishing village that believes in sacrificing their daughters to mysterious sea-dwelling creatures in nearby waters. When her time comes, she shuns and fights back against tradition but is labelled as a curse by everyone around her. The Image Nation Abu Dhabi-produced film was shot entirely in Oman and stars Basima Hajjar, Ashraf Barhom, Yagoub Alfarhan and Fatima Al Taei in lead roles.
The film explores the contradictions between belonging and freedom, and between tradition and revolution, while attempting to reconcile those conflicts. Ameen described the story which focuses on the ever evolving role of women in society as an “artistic comment” on patriarchal societies. “Scales’ tells a visceral story about growing up as a woman in a patriarchal society, offering an allegorical take on a universal theme that will resonate with audiences around the world,” she said in a released statement. “Relying on simple yet powerful storytelling, it is a very visual experience with minimal dialogue – maintaining a timeless, meditative aspect even in its action scenes. I want to immerse viewers in Hayat’s journey from her own point of view, letting them share in her experience as she finds her true self.”
Ameen was born and raised in Jeddah. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Video Production and Film Studies from the University of West London, and also holds a degree in Screenwriting. Her films include Our Own Musical and Leila’s Window (2011), which was screened at the Gulf Film Festival and was named Best Film at the Saudi Film Festival.
Scales, which will premiere at Venice Film Festival. (Courtesy Image Nation Abu Dhabi)
Ben Ross, chief content officer at Image Nation said in a statement, “This nuanced, artistic project embraces film’s power to address important subjects like freedom and belonging,”
“Scales is part of Image Nation’s efforts to expand our slate to encompass more intriguing, specialty films alongside our more commercial projects. We foresee that Scales will be well-received on the festival circuit. This is a film that brings profound insights into contemporary culture. We hope that it will bring further recognition of the region’s growing maturity and sophistication.”
The Lebanese feature All This Victory is also set to screen and compete at the 76th edition of the Venice International Film Festival. Directed by Ahmad Ghosein, the drama is set in 2006 during the war between Hezbollah and Israel. A co-production between Lebanon, France and Germany, the film tells the story of Marwan, a son that goes in search of his father who refused to leave his village during the war. In 2018, the film won the Eastern Promises Works in Progress Award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
The Venice Film Festival is the world’s oldest and one of the most prestigious film festivals, having made its debut in 1932. The festival is widely seen as a testing ground for Oscar-contenders, with the final lineup including premieres from prestigious filmmakers. This year's Venice International Film Festival opens on Aug. 28 and runs until Sept. 7. Among other prizes, all Venice Critics’ Week films will compete alongside titles in the official selection for the festival’s Lion of the Future award worth $100k. The winners of that prize are decided by the public rather than a jury.