There are still quite a few genres that are sparse in the Flemish film landscape. Science fiction, horror, musicals, these are all examples that quickly come to mind. A little more surprising is the biopic, which has received little attention in Flanders. Marina and Tot Always are perhaps the best-known examples. Perhaps it is Flemish modesty that plays a role, because there are plenty of interesting people. Just look at the latest addition to the genre: Cool Abdoul , about the turbulent life of Ghent boxer Ismaïl Abdoul. We went to see Film Fest Gent and concluded: if they are all as good as this film, we hope to see many more biopics.
Cool Abdoul to the top
In 1998, Ismaïl Abdoul (Nabil Mallat) is already a three-time Belgian champion in boxing, under the nickname Cool Abdoul. But he would like to climb more. In the nightlife he often sees discrimination due to his Mauritanian background, but he also meets Mike (Steef Cuijpers), a doorman with connections in the boxing world. He wants to bring Ismaïl onto the European circuit if he is willing to become a doorman in exchange for him. His trainer Ron (Johan Heldenbergh) agrees if it is short-lived. Meanwhile, he also tries to build a relationship with Sylvie (Anemone Valcke), a basketball player who won’t let herself be walked over.
Mike does what he promises and success follows for Ismaïl . But to maintain that, you need money. Before that, Ismail, like Mike, begins to condone some of the unsavory things that happen in the nightclubs. He becomes more and more captivated by that lifestyle, which also jeopardizes his career and relationship.
More of this please
There is actually a lot and little to say about this film at the same time: everything is right and just works. With the greatest asset I want to start right away. Nabil Mallat puts in an absolute shine performance. He commands attention in every scene and every time my eyes were drawn to him. He gives Ismail real depth. His interpretation is therefore never over the top, despite the dramatic life of his subject. Mallat often says more with his facial expression and attitude than with words. His physical presence is also impressive. Ismaïl had a striking look that you have to get away with, but that doesn’t detract from his acting either. At the same time, he is also very credible as a boxer. Moreover, Mallat is from Antwerp, which makes his Ghent accent even more impressive for this film.
But Mallat also receives support from top Ghent actors such as Johan Heldenbergh and Anemone Valcke. I’ve never seen Heldenbergh do anything bad, and it’s no different here. In Cool Abdoul he is rather the silent rock to build on, but also to tell Ismaïl the hard truth. As an actor, he always adds quality to the already excellent film around him. My surname mate Anemone Valcke is the perfect sparring partner (see what I did there?) for Mallat. Their chemistry is excellent, which makes their scenes together very fluid and natural. Sylvie is someone who doesn’t let herself be tricked and challenges Ismail to do good, but Valcke doesn’t make a caricature of her either. Her part in the film is therefore not to be underestimated.
Layered and passed
Boxing films are also rare in Flanders, but the way boxing is portrayed here is certainly not inferior to the American equivalents. For the viewer, every shot lands, even if it doesn’t on set. It doesn’t stand out at all. The physical cringe as an audience is therefore not lacking here. One of the movies you could compare it to is Creed , although it relies more on the show element. The cinematography of Martijn van Broekhuizen ( Driver ) casts everything in a bright, warm light and stops you in the middle of the fights.
The script by Jonas Baeckeland, Fikry El Azzouzi and Wouter Van Haver keeps Cool Abdoul realistic and does not mask Ismail’s behavior either. In the beginning of the film we see that his temperament can play tricks on him when he confronts his brother’s bully during class and accidentally swings a knife. His own inner struggle is also evident enough. You understand why he makes some choices.
But the prejudices that he has to deal with as a Belgian of foreign origin also play a role in this. In a recent episode of the Kids of Migration Canvas series, the witnesses still talked about being refused entry into clubs in the 1970s and beyond, and it’s shown here, even as far back as the 1990s. That certainly affects his choices and can therefore not be pushed under the rug. His faith and culture are very important to him, so it’s good that it is shown. For example, the theme song by Mariem Hassan and One Track Brain, which returns a few times in the film, adds a modern and at the same time traditional touch to the music.
This is Jonas Baeckeland’s full-length debut as a director, and that’s quite impressive. It is often difficult to make a film about someone who is still alive, especially if they have a turbulent past. But the real Ismaïl contributed to the film and is fully behind it. If you already have that approval, the public’s approval may not matter yet, but we also say wholeheartedly: everyone there.