Scales

Beautiful arthouse horror, like a Saudi Shadow Over Innsmouth. Shot in black and white, the story takes place on this stark rocky island surrounded by an expanse of deadly sea. There, the people survive by sacrificing their firstborn daughters to the sea, in return for favour for the fishermen’s hunt. Until Hayat breaks that tradition.

A dark flavour of magical realism, the film uses gorgeous cinematography rather than dialogue as its main story delivery. The black rippling waves have the same ominous and unnerving effect as the susurrations of the tall grass in the wind in Onibaba. Jumping into the sea is seen as test of manhood and bravery, as though it is jumping into death itself. In the first scene, where fathers take their baby daughters to be sacrificed, the camera sinks below the waves while still gazing up into their expressions of loss, the ripples of the surface seem like the veil of death behind which they are disappearing.

Hayat was meant to be sacrificed by her father, but he so loved her, her couldn’t let her drown, and pulled her from the clutches of whatever is beneath the waves. However, now 12 years later, the time of sacrifice is upon them again. He is expecting his second child, and Hayat’s only hope is that it is a girl, who can take her place.

It is a strange feminist fairytale, where Hayat must decide to takes the reins of her own life, and choose whether and how to survive. Raised as an outcast, she is seen as a curse, an ill-omened thing. The women see her as an affront to the order of things, that her survival is an insult to all they have sacrificed, for their suffering to have meaning it must have been necessary. Even Hayat’s own mother begs her to sacrifice herself, as she fears having to lose her new baby to the sea. Yet Hayat is cool and determined, insistent on her own right to life, as much as any son.

Yet it is a thoroughly ambiguous story, with Hayat longing to become a hunter, like the respected fishermen who bring home catches. But as the scales on her own feet tell, she is just like what they are hunting. The film asks how to escape from this power dynamic of predator and prey, where the only options are to submit to violence or inflict it.

And I can sympathise with those that might come away feeling like the whole thing is too unresolved, too vague. It is a film dealing with symbolism but very few answers. When I first saw the scales on Hayat’s feet, I wondered if it meant she was always destined to be below the waves, but as the film went on, you can see it as her having one foot in either world. Is affinity for the hunters a yearning for a respected position in society, or a survival tactic, or an envy of the ease and status of men, or a queer metaphor? Is Hayat’s effect on her society destructive, or redemptive, or simply anomalous? I liked that openness that is left for discussion and interpretation, but I can see how some might find it frustrating.

Has the gloomy, morphean quality of something like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.