UAE at 50: Mansoor Alfeeli on how theatre helped springboard the local acting industry

Seasoned Emirati actor takes us to the beginnings of his career and reflects on developments in the industry

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - April 12 2013 - Emirati actor Mansour Al-Feeli poses for a portrait at the Gulf Film Festival. (Razan Alzayani / The National)

With dozens of credits across Hollywood, Bollywood, regional cinema and theatre, Mansoor Alfeeli is easily one of the most prolific and dedicated Emirati actors today.

Over the last three decades, he has worked with some of the foremost Emirati talents and directors, including Abdullah Saleh, Majid Al Ansari, and Jamal Salem. He has also appeared in several short films by emerging filmmakers, such as Hana Kazim, Abdulrahman Al Madani, and Raihana Al Hashmi.

As such, Alfeeli has had a distinctive vantage point on the beginnings and ongoing developments of the local acting industry.

Mansoor Alfeeli as Colonel Jamal Al Khatri in 'Al Kameen', which was released in the UAE earlier this month. Photo: Image Nation Abu Dhabi

The National sat down with the Al Kameen and Shabab Sheyab actor to discuss his career, which began in 1989 and which he traces back to a billiards cafe in Dubai.

“The cafe was called Malek Al Alaab [King of Games],” he tells The National. “I used to be an avid billiards player. I was quite a good player. There was always a crowd around my table. A good segment of the local artistic community in Dubai frequented that place. One of those was Abdullah Saleh.”

A director, writer and actor, Saleh was a longtime member of the Dubai Folklore Theatre. Established in 1977, the theatre was the training ground for several celebrated talents in Emirati cinema and television, including Samira Ahmed, Fatima Al Hosni, and Adel Ibrahim.

“It was Saleh who came up to me and said I should be an actor,” Alfeeli says. “I wasn’t really interested. I had never thought about becoming an actor. He told me to go to the theatre and see the process for myself.”

Alfeeli was eventually convinced to enrol in an acting workshop, which was led by Habib Ghuloom, who was in Ali Mostafa's 2009 drama City of Life.

Mansoor Alfeeli worked with Pierce Brosnan in the US heist film 'The Misfits', which was shot in the UAE. Photo: Mansoor Alfeeli

“I was told that at the end of the workshop we would present a play based on a poem. That’s what convinced me to attend,” he says. “I love poetry and was curious about how the medium would be presented on stage. It was a wonderful workshop.”

It wasn't until the Gulf War began in 1991 that Alfeeli really got into acting. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait led to the departure of many of the Gulf country’s artists and talents, several of whom settled in the UAE.

“Some of the best Kuwaiti actors came to live in the Emirates after the Gulf War, such as Dawood Hussein and Ghanem Al Saleh,” Alfeeli says. “Their presence here helped boost local theatre. I didn’t want to pass on the chance to work with and learn from some of the best, so I became an active member of the local theatre scene.”

Mansour Alfeely as an Emirati lawyer in Justice / Qalb Al Adala. Courtesy Imagenation Abu Dhabi

After acting in a series of productions, Alfeeli, along with several other local talents, founded the Al Ain Theatre in 1992. Between theatre groups in Dubai and Al Ain, Alfeeli acted in a number of productions including Lil Kibar Ma Al Tahiya as well as Bu Mahyous Fi Warta, sharing the stage with several prominent local and regional actors including Al Saleh, Mohammed Saeed, Saleh, Adel Ibrahim and Aisha Abdel Rahman.

Over the next few years, Alfeeli set his sights on the burgeoning local television industry. He reunited with several of his stage peers in the 1996 series Marmar Zamany, including Ghuloom, Al Hosni and Maryam Sultan. That same year he worked on the series Awdat El Faris (The Return of the Knight) with Emirati director Abdel Wahab El Hindy, who was a graduate of Cairo’s High Cinema Institute and whose works had already begun gaining recognition in the wider Arab world.

But then everything came to a standstill, Alfeeli says.

“After 1998 it seemed like there was no work,” he says. “I felt downcast and moved on to other things, leaving acting behind.”

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There has been a great leap forward in the last eight years, with a rise of local talents and big production companies coming to film here
Mansoor Alfeeli, Emirati actor

For years, Alfeeli showed little interest in returning to acting. Then, in 2006, he received a call from Jamal Salem, who insisted that the actor join the production Jamrat Ghadaa, which he had written and was being helmed by Syrian director and actor Aref Al Taweel.

“[Salem] said that no one but me could play the part,” Alfeeli says. “But I told him I had left that world, and had no interest in returning. He then told me what the series was about and the fact that it was being shot in India.”

The series, which also starred Qatari actor Abdulaziz Jassem and Kuwaiti actress Mona Shaddad, told the story of two inmates who break out of an Indian prison. The script, says Alfeeli, who played the part of one of the inmates, was compelling, and the fact that the project was being shot in India, a country which he had developed an affinity for, made the project irresistible.

“I wanted to have the experience of shooting abroad,” he says. “The show was an eight-episode series, which became very popular and successful. More opportunities came after that, things coincided and production in the UAE started booming.”

Still from 'Shabab Sheyab' featuring Mansoor Alfeeli, left and Salloum Haddad. Courtesy Image Nation Abu Dhabi

Since then, Alfeeli has appeared in many projects.

In the 2013 iteration of the Gulf Film Festival, his steadfast dedication to the craft of acting seemed most salient, as the actor appeared in seven films screening at the event. These were the shorts Where Are We by Khalid Ali, Sunset by Mariam Al Nuaimi, Rain Without Clouds by Saeed Alsheryani, Murk Light by Yasir Al Yasiri, Men Subdue by Saeed Salem Almas, The Line of Freedom by David Whitney and the feature-length Royal Love by Jamal Salim.

He has built a filmography that has more than 65 films, series and plays. However, there are a few that particularly stand out in the actor’s memory.

“With Dishoom in 2016, I became the first Arab actor to have a main role in a Bollywood production,” he says. “And then there was Shabab Sheyab in 2018, which went on to screen in the US. The audience loved it and after the premiere, stayed back for more than an hour and a half asking us questions about the film. It really showed me how cinema is a global language.”

The opportunities led to him working on the US heist film The Misfits. Shot almost entirely in Abu Dhabi, it gave Alfeeli the chance to rub elbows with Hollywood actors including Pierce Brosnan, Tim Roth, Jamie Chung and Nick Cannon.

While Alfeeli is optimistic about what the future holds for local cinema and the acting industry, he also stresses that there is a lot of work to be done.

“There has been a great leap forward in the last eight years, with a rise of local talents and big production companies coming to film here,” he says. “But we need more government backing. We need investors that are risk-takers.”

Just as important, he says, are the film festivals, which provide a platform for emerging and established talents to learn from one another and to boost local works.

“We used to have the Dubai International Film Festival and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival,” he says. “But they both were cancelled. We need a large-scale film festival where we can support local and regional work. We have some excellent talents, and we need to show that."

Updated: December 2nd 2021, 6:46 AM