The guaranteed audience for The Scars of Ali Boulala is not hard to anticipate. If it lands major distribution, the debut feature documentary from director Max Eriksson will soon be appointment viewing for skateboarding enthusiasts of all ages—particularly former skate rats currently creeping into middle age. Those are the viewers who are likely already aware of Ali Boulala’s exploits.
The Swedish skateboarder gained infamy throughout his professional career for his daring stunts and his punk rock attitude (and attire). With camcorders constantly rolling, Boulala is seen taking dangerous drops off the roof of an eight-foot-high shed and making multiple attempts to ollie over a 50 step concrete staircase.
Tricks like that made Boulala a celebrity within the skateboarding community but he’s hardly known to the world at large. This makes Eriksson’s decision to devote an entire full-length documentary to the former skater’s life a curious one, especially as the director doesn’t give the casual viewer any reason to care about his chosen subject.
There’s certainly a lot to explore. Growing up in Sweden, Boulala had a preternatural talent for skating, and the sport consumed the majority of his waking hours. His abilities soon drew international attention, bringing with it sponsorships and touring opportunities. Barely into his teens and surrounded by a gaggle of other adrenaline junkies, Boulala got wilder as he went. Fueling his days was a steady diet of drugs and alcohol.
The Scars of Ali Boulala is, then, partially a cautionary tale. Boulala is frequently seen punishing his body as he either fails at a big trick or acting a fool for the amusement of his buddies. As his tolerance for thrills got higher, it culminated in a tragic incident that left him with permanent brain damage.
Between the vintage footage from skate videos and interviews with other skaters, Eriksson works in footage of Boulala in the present day. He moves around much slower than before and his memory continues to fail him. When the film opens, Boulala’s mother helps him flip through a few huge stacks of his signature skate decks. He only recognizes a handful of the designs.
Even with those warnings, Eriksson never unlocks the puzzle of how to make a general audience truly engage with Boulala’ story. The filmmaker doesn’t place this young man into the larger story of skateboarding’s rise in popular culture. Nor does he really give us a clear understanding of what made Boulala so good at the sport.
There’s a smattering of archival footage of the skateboarder at his peak, but the emphasis is too often on Boulala partying or angrily reacting to not landing a trick. It’s painful to watch but that pain somehow never evolves into the full empathy that Erikkson probably hopes for.