REVIEW: Sayyedat al-Bahr [Scales] [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 74 minutes
    Release Date: July 9th, 2021 (Saudi Arabia)
    Studio: Variance Films
    Director(s): Shahad Ameen
    Writer(s): Shahad Ameen

Maybe there was another choice.

To be expendable is to be replaced because those in power of the situation deem you easier to discard than protect. It’s the driving force of bigotry throughout the world on religious, racial, and gender lines because it’s predicated on the idea that one group is superior to another. And that group is allowed to dictate those terms simply because they are in control. It doesn’t matter what reasons they had for drawing the line either since the moment it appears is the moment when its protection becomes paramount to everything else. That line keeps those who drew it in power. That line gives them authority. And that line becomes their peoples’ culture to the point where those on the wrong side of it forget it isn’t real.

There’s no more prevalent example of one such division than that crafted by the patriarchy. It could be the systemic rule over women’s bodies that white Republican men have wielded for centuries in the United States or the cultural and economic rule over women’s right to live in China during their “one-child policy” era. Go to the Middle East and you’ll find examples such as Saudi Arabia where women just received the right to apply for official government documents without a male guardian’s consent in 2019—one year after they were granted the right to drive in 2018. It’s no wonder why an artist born and raised under such oppression like Shahad Ameen would find herself writing and directing a fable striving to shine a light upon it.

Enter Sayyedat al-Bahr [Scales]: the tale of a young girl born to be sacrificed to the sea creatures that serve as her peoples’ only source of sustenance. Their remote island home (the film was shot on the shores of the Musandam Peninsula in Oman) has no animals or vegetation and the water contains no fish. The men are thus tasked with the role of “hunters” to sail their ships into the distance to harpoon a mermaid that will then feed the entire village while the women are tasked to be the currency that allows this symbiotic existence to persist. How? By being thrown into the water to be taken by those same monsters. And if every family doesn’t give one daughter to this communal cause, the price becomes God’s wrath.

Muthana (Yagoub Alfarhan) doesn’t seek to topple this arcane way of life when he pulls his baby daughter from the grasp of these sea creatures. He simply can’t bear losing his first-born child. He’ll live with the mark it places upon him as a “coward” and Hayat (Basima Hajjar) will live with the mark of “pariah” through no fault of her own. It’s either that or send her to the water once she’s older. Their only hope is that her mother will give birth to a sister to take her place—a girl who “deserves” life because Hayat should have already been lost. But what would her prize be for living? Knowing she remained because her sibling died? Becoming a mother forced to kill her own child too?

It’s a dark metaphorical mirror of how so many societies treat their women as second-class citizens if not property to be used and abused at their whims. It’s about control and self-preservation. It’s about men having a ready-made scapegoat so that they never have to hold themselves accountable. Why is the island going hungry? Because the cycle was broken. And until the sea creatures get what they are owed, the villagers will continue coming up empty-handed. That’s what they tell themselves anyway. That’s what their parents told them was true. That’s what the girls “lucky” enough to live past infancy are burdened to accept all because the men in power saw their sacrifice as a better alternative to putting themselves at risk if they ever sought another way.

Ameen has said that Scales is a story about her awakening to this reality—to realizing the worth her community was placing upon her wasn’t nearly as much as she deserved. Hayat’s quest to fight against her fate becomes her feminist struggle for equality. Because what reasons do the men on this island (like Ashraf Barhom‘s Amer) give for condoning their barbaric tradition? They say only men are strong enough to hunt. They say their struggle to provide while their wives stay home earns them the right to be “more.” Hayat must therefore do the only thing she can to change their minds. She must bring home a mermaid. She must survive her attempted sacrifice and show her value via the only commodity worth more than her death.

As any woman in oppressive, patriarchal societies can explain, however, no amount of compensation will ever be enough. If she brings that carcass home to be slaughtered, the best she’ll earn is a spot on the boat mending nets. If she helps secure another beast, the best she’ll earn is the label “lucky” before reverting it back to “pariah” the moment a third doesn’t quickly come to fruition. That is what it means to be disposable in the public’s eyes—to be victim-blamed, disbelieved, or worse. Why? Because your survival in the face of the trauma wrought against you is evidence of your oppressors’ shame. The only way men like Amer can sleep at night is knowing that murdering their own daughters meant something. The prophecy is self-fulfilling.

It’s not enough for Ameen to merely expose that universal truth. She must also show the personal cost by pulling the curtain on what it is that’s really happening. I’m not quite sure if it’s meant to be a secret or not since it seemed pretty obvious to me the instant we see Hayat has scales growing where the sea creature grabbed her ankle as a baby, but the closed circle in play here goes well beyond the callously sinister into horrific nightmare. I don’t think Ameen is worried about keeping her final truth hidden, though. She’s constructed her film’s familiar prison with the idea that potent imagery trumps expository dialogue and thus accepts her audience’s ability to connect the dots early despite verbal confirmation arriving much later.

And while the low-budget and slow pacing of this 75-minute black and white feature will surely turn some off sight unseen, I’m not sure anyone who sticks around for a breathtaking finale orchestrated by the tides will go home frustrated by what they’ve experienced. We’re ultimately watching a diaspora born from the realization that no one is meant to be another’s pawn. One could even see a commentary on capitalism in what transpires as the water recedes to leave the men hungry—the “bosses” being left to fend for themselves after their mistreated “employees” rise and say, “No more.” Anytime a group of people are marginalized into believing they’re “less than” those pulling the strings, the truth invariably proves the opposite. A different type of scale has tipped.

[1-3] Basima Hajjar as “Hayat” in SCALES

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