“You must have a man’s courage,” Amer (Ashraf Barhom) tells young Hayat (Basima Hajjar), instructing her in the mechanical as well as emotional operation of a harpoon gun. Hayat, inexperienced in the hunter’s ways, hesitated on her shot nights prior while staring a man-eating mermaid right in the eye, and Amer had to make the kill for her. In a quiet moment, he takes her under his tutelage despite her status as pariah. But Amer’s advice isn’t advice at all: It’s an invitation to the vicious, violent cycle that has kept him, Hayat and their people trapped in a constant state of sacrifice and bloodletting for who knows how long. A man’s courage is a foolish, dangerous thing.
The dichotomy between a man’s courage and a girl’s compassion makes up the center of Shahad Ameen’s debut feature, Scales, a black-and-white horror-fantasy set in a barren world where survival is bought with the unthinkable. Set in a poor, unnamed fishing village along an arid coastline, the film opens on the commencement of a ritual in which new fathers wade waist-deep into lapping waves and deposit their squalling newborn daughters beneath inky waters. One man performs this monstrous duty with resignation. The other, Muthana (Yagoub Alfarhan), drops his own child, the previously mentioned Hayat, to her fate, but when he sees a webbed hand grasp her ankle, he acts, yanking her from the creature’s clutches and wading to shore as the babe coughs up water and gulps down air. 12 years later, Hayat is a preteen with scales decorating her body where the thing touched her, Muthana is an outcast and the village is cursed with poor catches from the sea.
In tales of monsters, whether told through the lenses of science fiction or horror or other genres, the question is often asked whether humanity is worse than the monsters in question. Ameen flirts with the same reflection in Scales but comes up with a considerably less judgmental answer. The absence of judgment leads to a complicated conclusion, but this just makes her parable all the richer. Taking the most obvious read, Scales makes patriarchy a villain and women its victims. Amer teaches the village’s boys to kill without hesitation or mercy, raising them on a steady diet of male dominance and in the spirit that might makes right. When Hayat earns her way into their ranks by slaying one of the monsters on her own, she sees up close what these young men are taught by their elders: A callous indifference to life that’s uglier than the skin on her leg.
But Ameen, like Hayat, has a great heart, and understands how bringing up boys to be men—stoic, insular, decisive without rational thought—traps boys in the same culture of misogyny as her lead. There’s a gulf between what impact that misogyny has on the boys compared to the girls, of course. In Scales, anyone with a penis as their birthright are basically lottery winners: Boyhood is a Get Out of Jail Free card sparing them from a grisly aquatic doom. Hayat struggles for her place in her world, both as a member of the fairer sex and as a child who lived instead of died. Ameen’s sympathy for Hayat knows no bounds and extends to admirable lengths for Hayat’s male peers—even for Amer—but stops short of letting them off the hook (if you’ll tolerate the pun). If there’s such a thing as too much condemnation, there’s such a thing as too little as well.
What ties together the complexity of Scales’ morality with its gender clashes is Ameen’s filmmaking. It’s beautiful, for one thing: Patient and deliberate with emphasis on longer takes and close-ups of her actors’ faces—particularly Hajjar, whose expressions of Hayat’s bravery fill up the screen. More meaningfully, the black-and-white aesthetic gives the story space to breathe and room for Ameen’s genre elements to stretch their legs.
Couched in cinematographer João Ribeiro’s lush visuals, the fantasy and the horror feel more and less real at the same time: He brings this desolate landscape to startling life, never missing a chance to capture granular details like the craggy profile of a cliff face or sunlight glinting off of purling seas, and this in turn makes the practical FX stand out. Scales’ salt-crusted fish-women are indeed a sight to behold, after all, so giving them proper highlighting makes sense. But Ribeiro and Ameen do more than show off the excellent makeup work done to give these creatures life: They frame them as hapless in their own way, just like everyone else. Scales is a grim movie as much as it’s a gorgeous one. It isn’t without hope, but hope is in short supply, on land and underwater.
Director: Shahad Ameen
Writer: Shahad Ameen
Starring: Basima Hajjar, Yagoub Alfarhan, Ashraf Barhom
Release Date: July 9, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.