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TIFF Women Directors: Meet Shahad Ameen – ‘Eye & Mermaid’

TIFF Women Directors: Meet Shahad Ameen - 'Eye & Mermaid'

Shahad Ameen was born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Realizing at an early age that she could not make her dream of becoing a professional soccer player come true in Saudi Arabia, she turned to filmmaking to share the dreadful and beautiful stories around her. Ameen obtained a bachelor’s degree in video production and film studies from the Metropolitan Film School at the University of West London, then worked on several projects, including the music video for Sami Yusuf’s Healing. She served as an assistant director under director and cinematographer Jacob Kusk and studied screenwriting in New York. Her films include Our Own Musical and Leila’s Window, which had its premiere at the Gulf Film Festival. She is currently working on the web drama On Wheels. (Press materials)

Eye & Mermaid will play at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Short Cuts Canada Programme 3 on September 13.

WaH: Please give us your description of
the film playing.

SA: Eye & Mermaid is about Hanan, a fisherman’s daughter who looks up to her father and sees beauty in the pearls that he brings her from the sea. Hanan wants to ride the sea like her father, but she’s not allowed to. Her curiosity takes the best of her. That’s when she follows her father and his crew to find out that the pearls she adores are actually aggressively extracted from mermaids. Hanan is shocked to see her father treat a creature that is so similar to her in appearance with such cruelty when she has only known him as a loving father. When Hanan grows up, she tries to find a way to free herself from the pains and traditions of the past.

WaH: What drew you to this story?

SA: I always wanted to explore the Gulf region in its varied cultures and stories. I wanted to tell a story that is set in a fantasy world, yet deals with real issues. Stumbling on the story of the goddess Atargatis was the inspiration behind the idea of the strong mermaid that represents the wild woman, as I wanted to represent the strong women of the Arab world.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

SA: Finding the right actors for each of the roles was challenging because of the lack of drama schools and professional actors in the Gulf region. Nonetheless, the experience is always rewarding when you work with passionate actors who are willing to put their hearts and souls into the roles they’re playing. 

The underwater scenes were particularly tricky to shoot, as we only had a few hours to get them right. I had two incredible actresses who were willing to stay in the water for hours. Each shot was almost impossible to take, yet the camera crew managed to do a great job, and we got all of the shots we needed to tell the story of the underwater scene.

WaH: What do you want people to think
about when they are leaving the theatre?

SA: I want each individual audience member to leave the theatre knowing that they might’ve experienced a totally different film than the person sitting next to her/him in the theatre. The film touches on various themes on different subtextual levels, and so it’s up to the audience to become creators and experience their own endings. You might get out of the film believing in the libration of women in the Gulf region, and how in Hanan’s decision to become free from the pains of her past, she will stand alone yet find freedom and peace. Or you might think that since humans fear everything that is different from us, we decide to hate rather than love, and destroy rather than build.

WaH: What advice do you have for other
female directors?

SA: The chaos of filming and the suggestions of people around you might make you doubt the initial decisions you made for the film, and you might forget why you wanted to tell your story to begin with. That’s why I believe young female directors in particular should always remind themselves of the truths of their own stories and not let outsiders influence the authenticity of their films.

WaH: What’s the biggest misconception
about you and your work?

SA: People normally view my work as fantasy, which on some level is true, but I do think that my work is more magical realist than fantasy. I believe in the fantasies within each of our realities, i.e., I portray very relatable human issues in a very realistic tone, yet in a magical setting. 

Most people view female directors as female only, that we only deal with women’s issues and women characters. Although most of my films have dealt with women, I do have work that deals with other matters, and I’m always open to different stories regardless of gender.

WaH: How did you get your film funded?

SA: I wrote Eye & Mermaid and submitted the script to a grant called Hazawi, run by the Doha Film Institute in Qatar. Fortunately, the script won the grant, and I went on to shoot the film in Doha as part of the Hazawi program.

WaH: Name your favorite woman-directed
film and why.

SA: Jane Campion is definitely on top of my list, as I’m absolutely inspired by the strong, soulful female characters in her films. They are different from what we are used to seeing in mainstream cinema. I’m always fascinated by Campion’s incredible use of subtext, since it leaves the audience with a certain ambiguity that grants a space for each viewer to draw from their own experiences. 

I’m also a huge fan of Julie Delpy, as I really enjoy her use of dialogue and her uniqueness in sharing her personal views to the world in a way that no other female directors has done before her. I feel that Delpy deals with the psyche of the contemporary woman in a very [direct] format. 
I must also mention Haifaa Al-Mansour, who managed to direct her first feature film with an incredible female presence and an inspiring journey.

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