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Why This Saudi Director is Dominating International Film Festivals

Shahad Ameen

Saudi Arabian director Shahad Ameen with a look coordinated by Maria Fathy, jewelry from Indira Jewelry, and makeup by Nesma Ghoneim. Photographed by Raghda Elsayed

After winning the Verona Award for Most Innovative Film at the Venice Film Festival during its world premiere, a Sutherland Award nomination for Best First Feature at the BFI London Film Festival, a Bronze Tanit award at the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia after its MENA premiere,  and three awards at the Rabat International Author Film Festival, it’s clear that Saudi-Arabian director and screenwriter Shahad Ameen is dominating the international film festival circuit with her first feature film, Scales (Sayidat Al Bahr). 

A monochromatic film created by Image Nation Abu Dhabi and shot in Oman, Scales is a true embodiment of Arab cinema. Sharing the story of a young girl named Hayat who foregoes the outdated traditions being forced upon her by her village and decides to forge her own destiny, Ameen uses a fantastical world to empower women in the real one.  

Vogue Arabia spoke to Ameen about her experience creating the award-winning film before its upcoming global screenings at the Cairo International Film Festival, and the Singapore International Film Festival, where the film will soon make its Asia debut.    

When was the starting point of this project and how long did it take to finish it?

It all started with a short film I wrote in 2012, Eye & Mermaid, was screened successfully in festivals and after that, the journey of making the feature began. So, maybe six years on and off since I wrote the script in 2013. 

What inspired you to tell this story?

I wanted to tell the story from my voice. Too often in life, we forget our voices matter and they deserve to be heard. As a woman in such a stratified society, I felt the need to tell the journey of coming to accept yourself as a woman—with all the good and bad that comes with it. 

What is the message that you wanted to deliver in this film?

I don’t believe that films carry messages, but rather experiences. I wanted to share with the world the experience of coming to terms with who you are, whether you’re a man or a woman.  You sometimes have to unlearn what you’ve learned from the world around you. You must find your true identity in any society, even if that identity is frowned upon. That’s in the heart of Hayat’s journey. 

How did you choose Yacob Alfarhan and Basima Hajjar to star in your first feature film?

Yacoub and I met years ago and he originally had a small role in the short. He and Basima were the first two actors attached to the project. What is great about Yacoub is that he is a true artist before anything and, from his eyes, you can see the humanity and acceptance he carries. That’s how I needed Muthunah to be and that’s what I looked for in casting that role. As for Basima, my experience with her didn’t start with this film. She has been a huge part of my film career as I have three films where she plays the heroine and that what she is in real life. A true fighter, true heroine!

What can you tell us about your experience in feature films?

Feature films are time-consuming. When you make a feature, you’re entering a relationship that you have to commit to and dedicate almost all your thoughts and time to it. 

Your film won a Verona Film Club Award in Venice. What was your reaction to this win and did you expect it?

The award was a great boost for me. I’m more than thrilled that we got to share Scales with the world. The most important thing for me now is that people continue to see it and that the film continues to open up more conversations about beliefs and gender roles. 


A still from Scales. Courtesy of Image Nation Abu Dhabi

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What is the feedback that you got after the first viewing and did any of it stick in your memory?

For sure—I keep reminding myself that people who are watching the film won’t have the memory I have about it. For them, it’s completely fresh. And that is the nicest thing to see: Their fascinated reactions to some scenes that have haunted me, my cast and crew for years.

What was the hardest scene to shoot in this film?

Any scene that had water, boats, babies or mermaids was very difficult. But we knew that coming in and it was very exciting to get through the challenges. 

What are the obstacles that you and your team faced while making this film? 

On a film set, every day is an adventure. And on a film set where all your shots are exteriors and near water, it is almost a battlefield. But film crews are used to working under pressure and normally, things work themselves out. 

How would you say the movie industry has evolved over the past few years?

I’m enjoying seeing the rise of female voices. It’s been a long journey and because of the women who fought before us, now, more than ever, people want to listen to our voices.

Have you set your mind or your next project?

I have a couple of things that I’m working on, but I’m looking forward to shooting a film in Saudi Arabia, as I haven’t shot there in a while now. 

What can we expect from you next?

I feel that I established a certain visual identity with Scales and I will continue with that. I do believe we have to create an identity in film and that’s what I hope to create in my work.

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