Director Max Eriksson Speaks on His Film, The Scars of Ali Boulala

The film about the skater's tumultuous life took nearly a decade to complete.

Credits: Fred Mortagne / Max Eriksson / Olivier Chassignole

Throughout the mid to late ’90s I routinely crashed at 1919 Bainbridge Street in Philadelphia—an infamous skate house anchored by Vern Laird, Sergei Trudnowski, AJ Mazzu and Brian Smith. The living room was consistently occupied by visitors, and for a decent amount of time, a European skater and filmmaker named Mike Manzoori and his cohort, Brian Gaberman. Both were exceptional skateboarders who lacked jobs, so we spent hours on the couches in the living room watching the racks of VHS tapes, waiting for the actual occupants to get off work. We were nerds.

Manzoori was extremely animated and excited to share intel from overseas, which was welcomed since any non-California coverage of skateboarding in the pre-digital era was scant. On one occasion he mentioned an upcoming amateur named Ali Boulala who was going to “blow minds.” How could you forget such a lyrical name? Shortly thereafter, Boulala made good on Manzoori’s promise, captivating skateboarding with his on and off board stunts. He was a rockstar without an instrument and a personality without a path. This is the case with most skateboarders in the ‘90s, in that you don’t need to do much other than show up to a demo hungover and produce a few minutes of footage every few years or so.

Boulala possessed the mix of drive, creativity, and indifference that turns people with talent into icons. But that recipe was also toxic. The original Baker Boy, the petulant Piss Drunk, and the guy who almost ollied a set of 25 stairs in Lyon, France, Boulala was a living legend until he almost wasn’t.  In March of 2007, Boulala and friend Shane Cross took a motorcycle ride after drinking in excess sans helmets. Both suffered severe injuries with Cross dying in the hospital shortly after the accident. Nearly paralyzed and facing a prison sentence, Boulala never returned to skateboarding or normalcy. He’s battled depression, addiction, and checked himself into a mental health facility after a motor vehicle accident.

The Scars of Ali Boulala is a documentary film which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival this past June by Max Eriksson. It’s neither a precautionary tale or glorification of excess, but rather an extremely dark character study that scales past skateboarding. I spoke to Eriksson about the film, which took nearly a decade to complete.

What drove you to make this film?

I'm a movie nut and I've been since I was a kid. I’ve always wanted to get into making films, but I never wanted to destroy my enjoyment of film. So I really dragged it out way long before I started making films. I never had an idea that I wanted to do making documentaries, but all of a sudden, a story appeared to me a few years ago. And I was like, "This should be a documentary." That was my first short documentary about traveling carnivals in Sweden and in Northern Europe—that got me into film school. Later, I started to develop different stories that I wanted to do and one of those stories got me filming a guy in a bar—that guy was Ali Boulala. I was actually shooting another film when I saw Ali for the first time. This entire story of Ali just rushed into my head and I was like, "Okay, that's the next film we need to do."

That’s incredible. Were you familiar with him beforehand or was he just compelling and then you had to backtrack?

Yeah. I grew up in the street culture—skate culture, hanging out with graffiti artists and that kind of scene. I was never a skateboarder myself, but I knew who Ali was through friends who were skateboarders. Everybody showed me the Flip Sorry film back in the late-90s. He was sort of a weird kind of celebrity back then. He wasn't on TV, but you knew who he was.

I think skateboarding's over protective in the sense that, if you watch a documentary on space it’s obvious the documentarian hasn't been to space, but it doesn't matter. You're just trying to tell a story about something, which is very human.

Absolutely. People tend to think that since I've made this documentary about a skateboarder, I have to be a skateboarder. I never was. I was into inlining in the late nineties. [laughs]

Having seen the film, I think it's one of the only skate documentaries I've watched that really went into depicting how nihilistic skateboarding is. As a documentarian, how do you balance glorifying that lifestyle and also showing the reality of it?

I want the audience to make up their own minds. I was a huge fan of Jackass when that was around and you see all these skits and shenanigans and everything, and when we started finding old footage of Ali and his friends, it was similar. What I wanted to do was look at it with grown-up eyes. I still find it kind of funny, but I have matured. And all the people that were doing these shenanigans, they have also matured. So I wanted to have a grownup look at these times that they were living in, and then not pass judgment on them, but rather, let the audience make up their own minds. I think that some of the stuff they did is hilarious. And some of it is really, really dangerous, but I am not the one to pass judgment on that.

the scars of ali boulala horizontal
Olivier Chassignole

Sure, but what stood out to me is that you had Ali and his crew watching the Sex Pistols The Great Rock ’n Roll Swindle every day and emulating it without really thinking about the repercussions. I was really blown away by how much archival footage you found and how jarring it is. How’d you get access to all of it?

It was a huge process. The first step was finding out who shot what, and after you find out who did that, then you had to get in touch with them, and once you get in touch with those people, you have to ask them, ‘Oh, by the way, do you have those tapes from 20 plus years ago that you filmed on Mini DVs?’ There've been tapes found in attics, in cellars, at mom's house, all over the world and in different stages of deterioration. We've found Super 8 footage, we found old VHSs, all of it has had to be scanned in 4K and we have actually even used some AI programming to upscale it even more. It was a real hassle getting all this footage. I love skateboarders, but they're not the most reliable people when you need something from them. 

Was there any footage that became a “golden goose” during this?

Oh yeah, absolutely. The footage of Ali in the hospital had never been shown before. And that was actually one of the biggest breakthroughs in the film. I was sent that by Ewan Bowman, who was the videographer for all the later Flip years when Ali was there, and during the actual accident as well. So when he sent that clip to me and said like, ‘Okay, nobody's ever seen this, but I'm showing it to you. See if you can have any use from it.’ And it just blew me away. But what I found in it as well is, and this is in the film, he helps Ali to put a napkin on when he's eating. So he doesn't spill all over his shirt. That, to me—that camaraderie—was really, really important for me to find. And I reached back to him over email and said, ‘Thank you so much for sharing this, first of all. But I see it in this footage, how much Ali means to you and how dear friends you are with him. And I'm really wanted to say thanks for this.’ That got Ewan onboard. He was there for the night of the accident as well, so I interviewed him about it, and it's a trauma that changed a lot of people's lives. It wasn't just Ali and Shane that were badly hurt in that accident.

Being a documentarian becomes a tenuous thing because you become close to the topic. I'm curious how making this impacted you.

All your work as a documentarian is part you. I see a lot of my own story in this story. I see a lot of myself in Ali, I see a lot of differences as well. But it is a psychological examination of yourself making a film about somebody else. Everything has gone through my head, so the end result is—I talked to Ali about this as well—when we started filming, I said, ‘If you let me, I will tell your story.’ Does that make sense? I was asking him for permission to let me tell his story.

Right. So within that, was there anything that you had access to or something he said that you actually pulled back and said, "I actually don't want to put that in there."?

Nah, no. We were really open during this entire filmmaking process and I never stumbled across anything that we were like, ‘Oh no, no, no, we can't show that. We can't do that.’

Right on, I wouldn't think so, because it’s such a dark film but I wanted to ask because it’s a Bandaid rip off from the beginning.

I wanted that. I remember we screened it and there's this classic scene of Ali spitting at the camera. I just remember when that happened, a huge part of the audience, they gasped like, ‘Oh!’ They felt that they were spat on by Ali. I was like, "This is really interesting." I find it funny. I see where he imagines himself being Sid Vicious when he does that. But I found it so interesting that people were really offended by it. They were like, ‘Oh, he's spitting on me.’ That’s the thing, I’m not passing judgment and I don't want to censor anything of that lifestyle, or shenanigans that they were up to, but rather show it and have a look at this is how they lived their lives. Do with it what you will, but this is the story.

Do you think the things that happened to Ali, or people within that crew, or people within skateboarding, is simply because mental health isn’t talked about enough and that being a pro skater simply lacks structure?

The case can be made for that—I totally agree. I can't speak for every other skateboarding team, or a group of friends but yeah, my view of it is that everybody needs to vent their thoughts and feelings, especially after something as traumatic as what happened to Ali. If you just bottle that up, it will not go a good way. So that is one of my core things bringing into this film, that we need to open up and talk about it.

What was really striking about this film is that once something bad happens, Ali’s always just looking for redemption. Even if he's being nihilistic, he's proactive. He's driving himself to mental health facilities. I think that's very uncommon, how did that feel to you in knowing him?

That was actually really a big thing, because I started filming with Ali before he got sober, and he pulled away when he was really down at the bottom. I kept trying to reach him but he just dodged me. And then I heard that he got sober and I met up with him and talked with him. That's when he told me the story, how he smashed into the concrete pillar in a parking garage and that he found himself facing the choices: Either I drive full speed into the wall and kill myself, or I go and ask for help. And that was to me, a huge decision for him to make.

Part of Ali and his life is that he's never made any choices. People have just told him, ‘Okay, you're going to Rome, you're going to skate. You're going here. You're going to do that. You're going here. You're going to do that. Let's skate this, let's skate that.’ Stuff just happens to him and he hasn't really had to have a lot of those choices. But here he stopped and thought about it. And he, for himself, asked the question and he, by himself, answered the question, like: ‘Okay, I will choose life here and I will get sober or get help.’ 

What was really difficult for me is that there are two Alis. There's obviously so much brain trauma that he's an entirely different person. Maybe he's three different people. As a viewer, we all want this redemption thing—where someone's really remorseful—but he goes from this high energy person to this stoic version of himself. How did you handle documenting those vastly different people?

It was really hard, but I just let the story unfold as it unfolded in real life. The structure of it is sort of chronological. So since there is this huge difference in Ali before and after the accident, I wanted to emphasize that. But at the same time, I wanted to show that there are still parts of him that are like the old Ali, but somebody has turned down the volume on Ali. 

Having worked so long on this, what’s your personal takeaway from the film?

The biggest bottom line to me is the need to talk—the need to confront your own feelings. People need to open up and talk, no matter how hard it is. It is really hard to open up and talk about your feelings and emotions and what is bothering you, but in the end it really, really helps us.

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