Scales. A device used for measuring weights, and also used as a symbol of justice. Scales. A range that divides objects and people into different groups. Scales. A keratinous covering found on the outside of reptiles and fish. The directorial debut of Shahad Ameen, SCALES is a film layered with meaning. It follows the story of Hayat, a girl saved from being ritually sacrificed by her community to mermaids. She finds herself an outcast as a result and begins a transformation that transcends gender, tradition, and even species. While it may be framed through the fantastic there is something much deeper going on just beneath the surface.
The immediately striking feature of SCALES is that it eschews colour, instead choosing to be in black and white. This is a statement of intent, because by presenting itself in the binary, it is able to call attention to issues that suffer from such a categorisation. Hayat is our representative here, leading us on a journey into this society’s culture. Though she at first tries to comply with the society’s wishes – put in a room where she cannot interact with the outside world – he soon begins to challenge them, demanding a different fate. Upon proving herself, she is given the opportunity to try life with the boys, to take a step up the ladder of this patriarchal society. Yet Hayat is never comfortable here either. Violence towards her own horrifies her, as it did her father twelve years before, and though she tries to suppress parts of herself that do not fit, this eventually becomes untenable. In order to redeem the mistakes of her leaders, Hayat discovers that she must take her own path: that, in the end, she needs to be more grey.
Though the subtext and symbolism are heavy within this story, SCALES itself is not. One of the shortest features playing at the London Film Festival, clocking in at a tight 75 minutes, there is little excess to weigh the film down. Dialogue is used sparingly to enhance moments of character or to reveal important information, rather than falling into the tendency to explain in excessive detail. Indeed, much of SCALES could take place at any time and anywhere, with background detail pared down to the bare minimum. A further respite from modern filmmaking is to be found in the absence of a visual effects barrage. When the few, tasteful shots do arrive, their impact is that much the greater, providing some truly beautiful moments within what is already a well-shot film. Big budget productions, it seems, have a lot to learn.
Short but sweet, and laden with symbolism, Shahad Ameen’s directorial debut has more than enough power to capture the imagination. Though its distribution will probably be limited, it is definitely worth watching on the big screen, where its striking simplicity will be all the more powerful. Hopefully – like the runaway success of the similarly nautical BAIT – audiences will be drawn in hook, line and sinker.