Hayat Abu Samra ’10 Stars in a Award-Winning Film
In August 26, 2020, 160 cars pulled into the Abdali Boulevard parking lot, vacant except for a large screen at one end. Turning their radios to a specified channel, riders could tune in to the first-ever Amman International Film Festival (AIFF). Premiering that night was the short Jordanian film Huda, starring King’s Academy’s own Hayat Abu Samra ’10.
Huda tells the story of a young woman who is pressured into marrying an abusive partner. The film, which won the Black Iris Award for Best Short Film, packs heavy social commentary in its scant 12-minute runtime. It wasn’t Abu Samra’s first time behind the camera: she also starred in a short student film and a short silent film.
Abu Samra has been acting her whole life. She recalls “being so young and reenacting everything I saw on screen.” Growing up with a lot of American movies and a lack of internationally-renowned films in Arabic led her to believe that English was necessary for pursuing a career in cinema. Her extensive training in school and dedicated acting and theater programs were conducted entirely in English, creating a language barrier for her in Huda, as she had grown accustomed to acting in English rather than Arabic.
“I want to tell stories that people who grow up here can actually relate to, can actually see themselves in,” says Abu Samra. “Stories that don’t force people to keep looking outside for things that are relatable: our language, our relationship with our language and how complicated that is, our history and our culture.”
A political science graduate from Swarthmore College, Abu Samra wants to achieve social, political and cultural activism through art. While she initially believed that acting was “all or nothing,” she came to realize through her Master of Arts in Art and Public Policy at New York University that art and activism are not mutually exclusive — they are mutually reinforcing.
“I think by default every artist is somewhat of an activist because all art comes from real life,” says Abu Samra. “Art and especially acting are much more relatable and human ways to get your message across and to tell stories that create empathy for people, and I think that’s a big part of being an activist.”
Abu Samra aims to take on roles that, “as global and universal as they can be, ultimately are really made for the local community.” Through working on films by, about and for local communities, Abu Samra is able to craft “three-dimensional” portraits of people, rather than the often-stereotypical portrayals of the region by international filmmakers.
It was during her postgraduate gap year at Deerfield Academy that Abu Samra realized the power of acting to pull down walls of misconception and craft stories with universal resonance.
“It was hard being the international postgrad student while everyone else was off at college,” she says of her Deerfield experience. “Acting was the one thing that I felt very confident in and that took away all my insecurities. All these things that define me — ‘she’s Jordanian, a woman, a Muslim’ — all these things completely disappeared when I was acting.”
In taking away these labels, Abu Samra is able to explore a wide variety of characters: from domestic abuse survivor, to breast cancer patient, to a young woman on the Autism spectrum. Over her years in acting, Abu Samra has honed her method for developing characters in roles far beyond her lived reality.
“First I understand who this character is, outside of myself,” she explains. “What her story is, what her motives are — completely dissecting the character as she is and as she’s written.”
Next, she begins researching by finding data related to the role (for example, what the side effects of chemotherapy are) and supplementing her research by talking to actual people who have been through the same or similar experiences as the character.
“From there, I put all this information in a box inside my heart and my head and I go back to the script,” says Abu Samra. “I find ways to relate to the character: places where you might not have gone through the same exact experience or situation, but how the person is feeling can be relatable, whether it’s loss or something else.”
Abu Samra’s character development is earning her recognition within Jordan’s burgeoning local cinema scene: in addition to the AIFF award presented to Huda, the short student film Hayat, starring Abu Samra, won the Jury and Audience prizes in the Royal Film Commission’s Jordanian Short Film Competition.
With these achievements already under her belt, Abu Samra’s future in cinema looks bright. Even so, her goals for the future are modest, reflecting her lifelong commitment to storytelling.
“I just continue to hope that I can build a bigger platform to connect with people to tell stories,” she says. “And that I would love to do through acting and through writing.”