Dina Shihabi: The actress blazing a trail for Saudi women

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Dina Shihabi had begun her journey for film stardom, despite all the cultural obstacles she faced in the region.
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Dina Shihabi on location for Tom Clancy’s ‘Jack Ryan.’ @ShihabiDina
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Dina Shihabi and American actor Martin Starr from her 2014 film Amira & Sam. (Photo courtesy: social media)
Updated 17 May 2018
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Dina Shihabi: The actress blazing a trail for Saudi women

  • Dina Shihabi is the first and only Saudi woman to be accepted to both Juilliard and the Graduate Acting Program at New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts, two of the most prestigious acting programs in the US.
  • Early setbacks helped me develop a strong work ethic, says Dina Shihabi

JEDDAH: The 71st Annual Cannes Film Festival, which continues this week on the French Riviera, is a historic occasion for Saudi Arabia, as it marks the first time that the Kingdom has participated in the event.

The newly formed Saudi Film Council is debuting nine short films by young Saudi filmmakers, and hosting a pavilion where guests can network with fellow professionals and representatives of the Saudi film industry, and scout out prospective film locations within the Kingdom. After officially reintroducing movie theaters last month, and establishing an opera house and national orchestra, along with the now frequent staging of musical and sporting events, Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an entertainment overhaul.

But long before any of these reforms began taking place in the Kingdom, a young Saudi actress by the name of Dina Shihabi was already blazing a trail for Saudi women in cinema as she began her own film journey in the face of regional and cultural obstacles. She was motivated to pursue an acting career and persist despite the challenges she faced along the way, and is now delighted to be witnessing the incredible, rapid changes for women, and the film industry, in Saudi Arabia.

Born in Riyadh to Saudi parents of Palestinian origin, Shihabi grew up in Beirut and the UAE, and started taking dance lessons at a young age. Speaking exclusively to Arab News, she recalled her first encounter with the performing arts in Dubai.

“I was 11 years old when I took Sharmila Kamte’s street-jazz class and everything changed,” she said. “I went home that night and told my parents I was going to become a dancer. And I wasn’t good at it — I could hardly move — but I was so obsessed with it that I would practice all day and night. I’d literally practice on my chair in school. Within a year I started dancing in Sharmila’s professional company and that’s what started my journey. It opened up that possibility in my mind.” 

Shihabi had her first taste of acting while attending high school in Dubai, where she frequently appeared in school plays. Her stage presence was noticed and she was encouraged to develop it further by her theater instructor, who advised her to pursue an acting career. At the age of 18, with the love of acting deep in her heart, she moved to New York City. 

“When I first auditioned for colleges to get an acting degree, I got rejected from every program I wanted,” she said. “I ended up going to a small conservatory for two years and then not getting invited back for the third year. I think about all these rejections so early on and none of it stopped me. It just made me work harder.

“I then started taking a class with an artistic director by the name of Wynn Handman, who was incredible. After studying with him for a year I got accepted to Juilliard and New York University’s graduate acting program, two of the finest acting programs in the US — far more prestigious than any acting school that I was applying to at 18.

“Rejection is a huge part of what this life is all about, and those early setbacks really helped me develop a thick skin and a strong work ethic.”

Shihabi was the first, and remains the only, Saudi woman to be accepted to both of these world-renowned acting schools. She graduated with her Master of Fine Arts in 2014 and quickly landed her first lead role in the 2014 romantic comedy film, “Amira & Sam,” in which she played Amira, an Iraqi-Muslim illegal immigrant living in a post 9/11 New York City.

Reflecting on her motivation for pursuing an acting career, a bold choice for a Saudi woman at the time, Shihabi spoke of a love of film that goes back to her childhood.

“I’ve always been a lover of movies,” she said. “I used to come home every day from school and watch one movie over and over again for a month. Everything from ‘Jurassic Park’ to ‘The Sound of Music.’ ‘Memento’ was a huge favorite of mine and started my obsession with director Christopher Nolan that has lasted to this day.

“But being an actor never came up in my mind as something possible. Growing up in Dubai, (wanting to be an actor) is not something that’s common. Then later, when I moved to New York to pursue both (dancing and acting), acting just organically won over. I feel like this life chose me. Everything happened so naturally and now I can’t imagine my life not as an actor.”

Given the rapid changes happening in Saudi society, both for women and the film industry, young Saudi women who decide to pursue an acting career may have things a little easier than Shihabi did. However, she is delighted about the sweet justice of equal rights and increased opportunities for women in the country.

“It’s so exciting,” she said. “I feel very proud of it all. I have so many female friends in Saudi Arabia who are business owners and have master’s and doctorate degrees, and I’m just so excited that the country they live in is going to better reflect the brilliant and powerful women that they are.”

This sense of shared pride is embedded in Shihabi’s identity as an Arab woman, but it was tested when she was starting out as industry professionals urged her to change her name — something many actors agree to for a variety of reasons.

“I was told to change my name because my instructors thought my Arab last name would limit my casting opportunities,” said Shihabi. “I didn’t want to. I love my true name and I’m proud of where I’m from. I grew up wishing someone who had a name like mine, and grew up where I did, was doing what I wanted to do, and so I wanted to be able to be just that.”

By insisting on keeping her given name, Shihabi is living proof that anyone with a dream can follow their passions without giving up their cultural and family heritage.

This is an exciting time for children in Saudi Arabia, who will grow up with international entertainment options that were not available to previous generations. They will spend weekends at movie theaters and not have a second thought of our 35-year cinema drought. 

For those children who become inspired to act as a result, Shihabi advises a steadfast approach. 

“Do it. It’s a challenging but such an enriching life,” she said. “And don’t just become an actor — write and tell your stories. The world needs you. I need you.”

A versatile actress who relishes taking on a wide variety of roles, Shihabi has a particular fondness for the genre of drama.

“I love acting in dramas. I love how it feels to get sucked into a world when you’re doing a drama. There’s silence around the experience. It’s hard to explain but it feels like the character and world sinks into your skin so deeply.”

Always one to look ahead, Shihabi discusses some of her acting goals: “I’ll share the first three that come to mind: I want to make my own movies and TV shows; I want to play Hamlet; and I would like to develop an artistic partnership with a director with whom I can make a series of projects with.”

Next up for Shihabi is a notable role alongside former “The Office” star John Krasinski in “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” an Amazon-produced series that will debut on its Prime streaming service August 31. 

She has also been cast in comedian Ramy Youssef’s upcoming Hulu TV show, due to premiere in 2019.


Muse: Singer-songwriter Gaya talks storytelling and creativity

Updated 27 May 2018
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Muse: Singer-songwriter Gaya talks storytelling and creativity

DUBAI: Dubai-based singer-songwriter, vlogger and content creator Gaya (Gayathri Krishnan) talks storytelling, creativity, and experimentation in a conversation with Arab News.

If you want your voice heard, build your own microphone, your own channel, your own soapbox. When you’re young you feel like the world owes you a stage, a chance, a shot. But with time you realize that the dream opportunity, whatever it is, the surest way to get there is to create that opportunity for yourself.

Music inspires me to do most things in my life. It really sets the tone for everything I do and I am. My exploration as a creative person started with music, but over time it has taken me into the spaces of film and design. Whatever the medium, though, a need to be creative and tell a story is what drives me.

Getting into the vlogging space has been extremely rewarding as it has a semblance of the immediacy that a live performance has; you’re connecting with people in real time and you’re breaking the third wall and putting yourself out there. The space feels familiar to me and brings together all my loves — music, shooting and editing films, and telling stories.

I don’t see my work as separate from my life or who I am. It is a very intrinsic part of my existence, so being creative is something I’m engaged in most of the time. I’m proud of having figured out how to make a living by doing all the things that I love and not having to limit myself to doing only one thing or being only one thing.

A lot of my work is autobiographical to some degree. It gives me great joy to be able to have a record of my life and be able to stay present in the moment through the pursuit of my work. I love that I am the boss of my own time and have the privilege and pleasure of working for myself. Most of all, I love that the intent of any idea that I work on is to be able to connect with people on an emotional level.

Every time I travel, I feel like I’m getting to live an alternate reality. I try to have an experience as close to a local as possible, making sure to carve out days to do the mundane things I would do in my own city. This really feeds my creative process in so many ways and many unfinished songs have been completed during my travels. I love traveling for extended periods of time as opposed to short trips because I feel like the best songs and writing come from that pivot point between comfort and discomfort. And when I travel, that oscillation is constant and really gets my creative juices flowing.

I move from project to project with a certain level of uninhibitedness. This somehow leads people to believe that everything I do is locked into some of kind of well-thought out strategy, but in reality every day is pretty much an experiment.

The biggest influence on me as a person has been watching my parents’ love and appreciation for music while I was growing up. Their ability to take anything we were listening to and appreciate every note, every nuance, every instrument, the timbre of the singer’s voice… It was a masterclass in music appreciation. It taught me and my siblings at an early age about the value of art and creativity in the world and how much of a two-way street it is: That as much as one must create for oneself, a perceptive audience is an essential part of any art form made for public consumption.

I admire any artist who isn’t afraid of going against what they set out to do when they started. I think the biggest disservice you can do to yourself as an artist is to say, “I do this one thing.” As great as it is to have a signature style that distinguishes you, it also important to not let it box you in.

My husband is also my music producer. In our relationship, the music came before the love and the marriage, so music has sort of been the cupid in our story. I think what makes it work is that I have always felt an immense sense of trust with him as a producer; that he too, wants the best for these songs. So when we’re both setting out with the same intention, everything else is gravy. We have learned to communicate well with each other and are able to both stand our ground, have both our voices heard and still love each other no matter how heated the creative arguments may get.

There’s still such conditioning around what a woman ought to be and what her role is, and it’s the root of so many problems. “Ambition” in a woman, for example, is seen firstly as something that needs to be talked about or pin-pointed and secondly, and most annoyingly, as some kind of negative, cut-throat thing; a quality that shouldn’t be possessed by women. I’m hoping to continue to voice my opinion when I feel like I’m being boxed into some archaic idea of what a woman ought to be.

A lot of men seem to be shaken and a bit confused about how they figure in a world where women are demanding their rightful place in various spheres. Very few men are happy to engage in a dialogue about this without feeling like we are on opposite sides of the table, but by getting involved they can help move the needle as opposed to drawing more lines in the sand. We need to get on the same page to actually move forward.