Summer Shesha

Challenging Stereotypes Through Cinema

Talented Saudi actress Summer Shesha is challenging how we see Saudi Arabia, and particularly how we see Saudi women and artists. Since bursting onto our TV screens in 2016 with Jeddah After Midnight, directed by Abdulelah AlQurashi, she has been on the rise, with some of her exciting films even screening at international film festivals. eniGma’s Rawya Lamei had the chance to sit down for a virtual chat with the face of the new Saudi women about her career journey and the challenges she has faced along her road to success.

After a delay due to several technical difficulties, we finally manage to set up our long-awaited Zoom session with Summer Shesha. Shesha’s easy-going attitude instantly breaks the ice, and no time is wasted as she goes about recounting her unlikely journey into cinema.

While Shesha loved performing in school plays as a child, acting was just a fun hobby for her growing up. The turning point for her came in 2013 when, just for fun, she auditioned for a role in a small web-series and got the part. She recounts that, while her character had approximately only ten minutes of screen time, she found herself in love with acting. “I remember asking myself, how have I not been doing this my entire life!” she exclaims, with a loud laugh and a twinkle in her eyes.

With that role, Shesha knew she had found her calling, and she was determined to pursue acting professionally. She decided to take acting classes in Los Angeles, and, as a result, she fell deeper in love with acting. She recalls how she would often find herself in tears after class, because she couldn’t quite believe that she had finally found something that she was crazy about.

A few short years later, in 2016, Shesha landed her first lead role in the short film Jeddah After Midnight, directed by Abdulelah AlQurashi, after which she starred in Exit 5, directed by Khaled Nader Shah in 2017. She recalls the experience in Exit 5 as an exceptional one, not only because it was screened in various film festivals, including the London Independent Film Awards, but because she was very good friends with Nader Shah and many other cast members.

As Shesha recounted her time shooting Exit 5, I was struck by her description of the anxiety that the cast and crew experienced during production. At the time of filming, the Saudi cinematic scene was very young, and not much was being produced. “While the film crew had all the required permits for filming,” she recalls, “If we so much as heard that there was a police officer nearby, I would just take off and run. I wouldn’t wait to see if they would bother to come to us, nor to see how the crew would explain that we were doing nothing wrong and that we had the permits to shoot. Instead, I would just run at any faint sign of possible confrontation.”

Shesha feels relieved at how the art scene has changed since those days. It is a breath of fresh air for her. Gone are the days of running from police officers. Now Saudi Arabia was hosting film festivals. Shesha was also excited about an upcomng show she’s currently developing with Netlfix.

With the changes taking over the Saudi social landscape, Shesha and others can embrace their dreams and aspirations openly. Shesha adds, “I love watching films from just about anywhere in the world. I also adore Pan-Arab cinema! Growing up, even my group of friends was very diverse. We were not all Saudis. There were Lebanese, Syrians, Moroccans, and Egyptians among my friends, which is why I have never felt comfortable stereotyping people.” In fact, Shesha is very passionate about breaking stereotypes, especially of Saudis, through her work. “We’re not all billionaires with pet camels,” she says jokingly. Shesha is very aware of the misconceptions that people have of Saudi Arabia, particularly the negative ones. She is extremely uncomfortable with the way that people view Saudis, especially Saudi women, and believes that art is one of the best ways to counter this. The growth of Saudi cinema and art in general, is very exciting to her. “We’re finally on the map!” she says, adding that Saudis finally have an avenue where they can be seen as what they are – people!

Shesha is also ecstatic about the positive response to her new film Kayan, a horror-thriller directed by Hakeem Jomah. The film got rave reviews with several audiences, including in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Sudan. Kayan was screened at the latest edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival as well; and the experience was nothing short of surreal for Shesha. Not only was it exciting that the festival was in her hometown of Jeddah, but on top of that she was also receiving prestigious recognition there! She was also super joyful that her family was with her there, supporting her throughout the process and that eventful night. “It really was an emotional rollercoaster; I had no idea what to feel!” she exclaims.

While Shesha considers herself an actress primarily, she also loves to write and direct. “Acting is definitely my number one priority, but I still am rather passionate about writing and directing,” she explains.

Elaborating on how optimistic she is about the momentous changes taking place in the art scene in Saudi Arabia, she stresses that artists of all fields truly need to collaborate for Saudi art to succeed and gain the recognition it deserves. “Saudis are incredibly creative. It genuinely bothers me that people don’t see that,” she laments.

In conclusion, she adds, “While competition can be healthy and necessary, this should not stop artists from collaborating. They should not isolate themselves. Only then will they be able to produce world-class art and finally be appreciated. I just wish we can all love each other!”