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Q&A with Shahad Ameen

Writer and Director of “Scales (Sayidat Al Bahr)”

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    Shahad Ameen    Courtesy photo
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by Mika Taylor '23

The short film Scales tells the folklore-based story of Hayat, a young girl who challenges the tradition of her fishing village where the sacrifice of young girls is done to appease monsters in the sea. The film premiered in 2019 at Critics’ Week at the Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Verona Film Club Award.  Scales was screened on Friday, January 31 at the Kimball Theatre. Ameen was a special guest.

Writer/director Shahad Ameen was born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Video Production and Film Studies from the University of West London and also holds a degree in Screenwriting. Her short films include Our Own Musical (2009) and Leila’s Window (2011), which played at the Gulf Film Festival and was named Best Film at the Saudi Film Festival. Her short film Eye & Mermaid (2013) premiered at the 2013 Dubai International Film Festival and was selected for competition at the Toronto International Film Festival, Stockholm Film Festival and Norway’s Kortfilmfestivalen in 2014. Eye & Mermaid was also awarded First Prize in the Emirates Film Competition and Best Cinematography at the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival in 2014.

How long have you been in the film industry?


I started making films when I was very young, but I went to film school after I graduated from high school, so I’ve been in it for 10 years.

With the movie Scales, what did you want to portray through the main character?


The film was always about the sanctity of life, how I discovered life is more important than traditions and the values that we sometimes push on ourselves. For me, it’s always about the father choosing life over death, choosing the love of his daughter over tradition; and that’s why the film’s main character’s name is Hayat [or “life” in Arabic], that we should love life more than anything.

I noticed you used traditional music in the movie. How important to you was the choice of music?


Oh! [laughs]. That was the hardest thing ever, because the film did not demand music. We worked with two brothers — French composers, and they were awesome — but I think they were very upset with us at the end because we started taking all of the music out, and we just kept one song of theirs that you hear throughout. We ended up producing the music to the minimum, and I just loved it. I thought melodies were not going to work with this film; melodies are already there in the sound of the sea, the wind. Our sound designer did an amazing job with everything, and we wanted to have this very silent world. We ended up keeping that one rhythm. I felt that I didn’t need music unless it went with Hayat with what was happening with her, that the music would convey it.

How powerful to you is the message of tradition and deviation from what is expected?


For me, that was one of the most important things, because when you get to look at the world as an outsider, you get to see it much more clearly; but when you’re inside of it, that is the only belief you have. That’s what I went through when I left Saudi Arabia, when I decided to look at the world from my position in it — from who I am — not what my parents taught me.

I did not throw what they taught me away, I kept it with me, but I decided to make my own way, make my own understanding, I decided to become more open-minded to the world around me, and that’s one of the hardest things that people can do. That’s why every time I meet someone who is from a very strict belief system and still manages to get themselves outside of it, I’m so proud. Because I know how hard it is to get yourself outside of a belief system; not to criticize it or anything like that, but just for once, as an individual, to make your own understanding. For me, that’s what Hayat goes through. She is the outsider. She is the other. She is the one who looks at the world from that point of view, from that of the sea. In the end, she comes to the understanding that she can forge her own way; she can become an individual in a society, while at the same time respecting certain things in the society.

You mentioned one of the main messages of your movie was a feminist one; one of empowerment. How important do you believe this theme is?


I feel like feminism is becoming more of something that you sell, and I’m hating it. Why use feminism as something that we can sell and create media attention around? For us as women, we know ourselves, we know our story, we know why we’re feminists. Why are we allowing other people to hijack our stories? That’s what they’re doing. And it’s really frustrating over the last couple of years, where suddenly feminism has become not a concept but rather, something that you buy and sell. I don’t remember. Maybe it was because of my strong mom and aunt, but since I was a kid, I was a feminist. Even when I didn’t understand what feminism meant, I was a feminist, just instinctively. I hate it when women come up to me and say, “Oh, we’re not feminists, because we appreciate when a man opens a door for us.” And my reaction was, “Yes, reduce feminism to this stupid concept.” I believe every woman is a feminist whether she knows it or not.

What advice would you give women in the industry?


Be honest. Be very honest with the stories that you’re telling. I feel that I was making films before, but I was being very dishonest. I was in film school and was still trying to find my voice and wasn’t being raw with myself. I feel every filmmaker when they make a film should be completely honest, completely naked, completely truthful with what they’re trying to say. Because if you lie for a second, everyone will notice it that it’s not you.

For more information about the 2020 William & Mary Global Film Festival, visit wmglobalfilmfestival.com