Saudi filmmaker Shahad Ameen sheds light on her debut feature ‘Scales’

Updated 07 September 2019

Saudi filmmaker Shahad Ameen sheds light on her debut feature ‘Scales’

  • Shahad Ameen’s ‘Scales’ just premiered at the Venice Film Festival
  • With the positive response to the movie, Saudi filmmaking is in a better place than it has ever been

VENICE: Shahad Ameen always had faith things would change. When the Jeddah-born director first decided to become a filmmaker, there were no cinemas in Saudi Arabia and women were often limited in the career paths they could pursue.

None of this mattered to Ameen — she never doubted that she could achieve her goal. Now, her faith has paid off: Cinema has come to Saudi Arabia, and Ameen’s debut feature film “Scales” has premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, after four years of grueling work.




Shahad Ameen (center). (Supplied) 

“People looked at me like, ‘Are you crazy? What are you going to do with this degree? Why would anyone study filmmaking?’ I said, ‘I know what’s going to happen, you don’t.’ I knew that something would change,” Ameen tells Arab News.

Ameen first fell in love with visual storytelling through watching Japanese animation and American films, but it wasn’t until she saw “Al-Kawaser,” the popular 90s Syrian television show starring Rashid Assaf, that she knew she wanted to make a career out of it herself.

“Before that, I knew that I would be a writer, maybe a poet, but I remember seeing that series and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s an Arabic show that I’m really interested in watching! People are speaking my own language and they look like me.’ This is when I decided to be a filmmaker. I really wanted to tell Arabic stories, and I really wanted to see something that represented me on screen,” says Ameen.




The film was shot in Oman. (Supplied) 

Her father bought Ameen her first camera at nine years old, and her friends and she quickly began shooting short films — often period pieces with props from around the house, edited directly onto VHS, and filming the credits by holding the camera up to a PowerPoint presentation on the family computer.

When Ameen first arrived at film school in London she was surrounded by American and European students who were far ahead of her in terms of their film education, but she refused to let that deter her.

“In the Arab region, especially in Saudi Arabia, it was not something that we knew. I felt like I was lagging behind compared to my classmates,” she says. “I had to work much harder to understand film theory and the visual language. I learned that cinema is a visual language, and you have to depend on visuals. That’s something that we don’t understand as Arabs, because we’re very much a literary-based culture.” 

Ameen didn’t listen to everything they taught her in film school, of course. Students are instructed to never use babies, boats or beasts in their debut feature, because of the intense difficulty and skill needed. But with her first full-length film, following a series of acclaimed shorts, Ameen decided to tackle all three.

Set in a dystopian world, “Scales” is a fable about a small fishing village and the mermaids that live in its surrounding waters, and a young girl who defies tradition to set her own path forward, much like Ameen herself.




A still from the film. (Supplied) 

“We had to stay for 33 days on the water in a small village that doesn’t have any infrastructure for cinema production. What you learn in film school is true,” she says. “Shooting the mermaids was so hard. Shooting on water would triple our time, literally. Every shot we would need to wrangle the boat, the waves would keep tilting the boat, not to mention loading and offloading actors. It was so challenging, but so much fun.”

Ameen brought in a strong Saudi cast and crew for filming in a remote town in Oman. In the lead role of Hayat, Ameen cast her long-time collaborator Baseema Hajjar, a 15 year-old actor also born in Jeddah, with seasoned actor Yaqoub Alfarhan as Hayat’s father Muthanah.

“I did two of my short films with Baseema so I’ve known her since she was about six,” says Ameen. “I also did some commercials with her — I know her brothers and her family very well. She and Yaqoub were attached to the project before we even got funding.”




A still from the film. (Supplied) 

Even when Hajjar’s school exams clashed with the shooting schedule and there were suggestions that the project should move on without her, Ameen was steadfast in her belief that she was the only actor for the role.

“She’s very instinctive. She just reacts to things. When you see her, you see how special she is. It’s the way she sees the world. That’s what I wanted in Hayat — someone who sees the world like Baseema sees the world,” says Ameen.

In addition, Ameen felt that Hajjar’s identity as a young Saudi woman brought the life experience needed to capture the themes of the film: “I wanted a Saudi girl who knows the pain of being a second-class citizen, that knows the pain of being in the middle of a very male-dominated society. Baseema was that for me.”

Ameen found one role especially hard to cast — Amer, the mermaid hunter who takes Hayat under his wing.




A still from the film. (Supplied) 

“We auditioned a lot of well-known Khaleeji actors and non-actors and none of them lived up to the character, and how his internal pain should be represented. Finally, we went with Ashraf Barhom a Palestinian actor, and he really did the role justice. We were so glad to have him because it was so important that Baseema had an experienced actor who she could play against, and frustrate her, and move her. That’s what he did with her on set — he made her so much better. He and Yaqoub were so good to her,” says Ameen.

Ameen’s distinctive black-and-white visual style for the film had a number of influences, from the films of Niki Caro, Yasujirō Ozu, and Guillermo Del Toro to the Brazillian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado. Ameen also looked for direct help from legends in the region, including Iraqi director Mohamed Al-Daradi and Algerian filmmaker Karim Traïdia, who guided her on how to work with actors and on tackling post-production.

With the film’s positive response at the Venice International Film Festival, where her fellow Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour also debuted her latest film “The Perfect Candidate” this year, Saudi Arabian filmmaking is in a better place than it has ever been. And Ameen is eager to see what the next generation will accomplish.

“Saudis are in need of art; they are in need of that release,” she says. “They are in need of healing themselves through art and through stories. They need to tell their side of the story. We have evolved — now we know that, without telling our stories, we cannot evolve.

“I want to see more female voices. Especially with girls, they have tremendous goals. Every time I talk to another filmmaker, it’s unique, because when a part of the community has been silenced for so long — knowingly or unknowingly — when they fight for the right to talk, they will tell stories that no one has ever heard,” she continues. “I really look forward to hearing more of those stories, and hopefully we’ll see more in the next few years.”


From Syria to stardom: Zain Al-Rafeea sheds light on his Hollywood highlights

Zain Al-Rafeea spoke to Arab News about his role in ‘The Eternals.’ (File/AFP)
Updated 18 January 2020

From Syria to stardom: Zain Al-Rafeea sheds light on his Hollywood highlights

LOS ANGELES: A child is forced to leave home to escape a terrible fate. Growing up in a strange land, he develops a special talent and achieves greatness.

It is a familiar story that could describe the lives of a host of superheroes. But it also applies to refugee and actor Zain Al-Rafeea, and his courageous journey from Syria to stardom.

Al-Rafeea was born in 2004. His family fled the Syrian conflict when he was eight, moving to Lebanon, where they were forced to find shelter in the slums of Beirut.

“Unfortunately, refugees face harsh conditions in Lebanon because the country has so many of them,” Al-Rafeea told Arab News. “I never thought I would be an actor or a famous person. I just dreamt of being safe with my family and that nothing bad would happen to them. I was focusing on making money to support my parents.”

In late 2017, Al-Rafeea’s life was changed by a chance encounter with Jennifer Haddad, casting director and collaborator of acclaimed Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki.

“I was in the street with a group of friends. I saw Jennifer, and she asked me if I would like to act. My first reaction was like ‘OK, I have no problem with that.’ She took a video of me, sent it to Nadine and things went on from there.”

Labaki cast Al-Rafeea as the lead in her 2018 drama “Capernaum.” The film was a hit, and the young actor’s performance was lauded by both audiences and critics.

“I did not imagine in my wildest dreams that I have such an international success,” Al-Rafeea said. “I just thought of it as an acting experience, but things went in a much better direction.”

In November, it was announced that Al-Rafeea will join the cast of Marvel’s upcoming “The Eternals.” The film tells the story of a race of immortal aliens who lived on Earth in secret, and features A-list stars such as Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek.

“The introduction happened through Nadine. Directors and producers from Hollywood talked to her and she put us in touch,” Al-Rafeea said.

The actor met his fellow cast members on the Canary Islands during the early stages of filming. “They were nice and their welcome to me was very sweet,” he said. “They invited me for lunch and we chatted for hours, I felt so happy.

“When we finished the first day’s shooting, Salma Hayek came up and hugged me. That night she gave me an iPad and iPhone, and we chatted and listened to music together.”

The teenage star couldn’t reveal much about his role in “The Eternals,” only that he joins the alien heroes as a human who can speak a mysterious 7,000-year-old language.

Life in the Beirut slums is a thing of the past for the Al-Rafeea family. With their son’s success, they were able to relocate to Norway.

“It is a perfect country, the people are so calm, and there are no fights or even traffic. Having water and electricity all the time is a great thing.” While he is excited about his new home, Al-Rafeea has not forgotten his friends, family and the home he left behind in Syria.

“Work hard for nothing is impossible — look what happened to me,” Al-Rafeea said in a message to children facing situations like the one he endured. “Simply dream big.”

“The Eternals” is due to be released in the US on Nov. 6, 2020. A Middle Eastern premiere date is yet to be announced.