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Hip-hop icon Ludacris stars in Petaluma native's latest film

The Petaluma skate park was taken over by a star-studded crew Tuesday as producer and actor Ali Afshar brought his latest BMX-themed film back to his hometown roots.

The action drama “Ride,” based on the true story of BMX rider John Buultjens, features a cast and crew of more than 100, with stars including hip-hop artist and actor Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Daytime Emmy-award winning actor Bryan Craig and Shane Graham, known for his role in “Boyhood.”

Graham plays a teenage Buultjens, who’s on a path to destruction until his life is turned around when he’s fostered by an interracial couple played by Bridges and Sasha Alexander. Struggling to make sense of an tumultuous upbringing by a racist and abusive father, the teen undertakes a transformative journey as his foster father buys him his first bike, helping him cope with his deep emotional wounds while allowing him to discover the freedom of BMX biking.

Bridges, who’s known for his roles in “Crash” and “The Fast and the Furious” series, said the film has a timely message as racial justice is at the forefront of conversations.

“The whole moral is love conquers all, so that’s what attracted me to the script and the role,” he said. “I was like this is something that I want to be part of because I know it’s not only going to make people uncomfortable but it’s definitely going to create conversation to evoke change in the world and that’s how I like to use my art.”

Afshar, who founded ESX Productions, has fond memories of competitive freestyle biking and riding in local haunts with his friends during his childhood in Petaluma, once building a half pipe in an abandoned warehouse. It was when he was looking to purchase a vintage remake Haro Bikes freestyle bike that he met Buultjens, the company’s brand manager, and after hearing the story of BMX biker and collector’s life, Afshar was compelled to make a film to share his story.

Buultjens, who elected to play the role of his own abusive father in the film, said the experience has been “surreal.”

“I still don’t believe it,” he said. “I’m just a guy that loved riding bikes. The passion for this sport really gave me the life I have today.”

Channeling the anger necessary to portray his alcoholic father was a challenge, Buultjens said.

“It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life but it was the most rewarding – I feel so light and lifted,” he said

For Afshar, telling the tale of Buultjens’ struggles and his ultimate success provided an opportunity to tackle a socially relevant topic while promoting an empowering message.

“It’s right up the alley of our kind of movie: hopeful and inspiration and feel-good,” he said.

The month-long shoot in and around Petaluma marks the sixth movie Afshar, a Casa Grande High School graduate, has produced in Sonoma County in two years. Afshar said he’s happy to bring his productions home, enlisting local talent while giving the economy a boost, with cast and crew occupying several local hotels and four rented homes, and part of the budget spent at local eateries and businesses.

“It’s great because of the flow of resources and friends and family that I grew up with,” he said. “It’s funny, a lot of people are becoming familiar with us being here.”

Among the flurry of bikers on set was Gabe Esquibel, an 18-year-old Petaluma High School graduate who “fell in love” with BMX biking at age 14. For him, the sport provides a way to “keep looking forward,” and he’s “stoked” to be among the 500 extras in a film that pays homage to one of his passions.

“This is a once in a lifetime thing,” he said.

Professional BMX biker Eddie Fiola, who helped organize stunts and acted as the “king of the skate park,” said the film speaks to the vital role that BMX biking can play in the lives of youth.

“It’s an awesome script and a great story,” he said. “BMX gives people a way to release.”

Afshar’s film comes at a time when Sonoma County is seeing a boom in local filming – in 2015, film crews injected more than $4 million into the local economy, marking a 110 percent increase over 2014, according to a report from the Sonoma County Economic Development Board’s Film Office.

According to the office’s Film Liaison Colette Thomas, about 16 permits were issued for filming in Petaluma in 2015, with an estimated 24 days of shooting. This year, the city issued about 10 permits, with about 30 days of filming.

Ben Stone, the board’s director, attributes the trend to a better picture in the overall economy and an influx of independent filmmakers like Afshar.

“I think we are lucky – of all the North Bay counties, we have the most active film program and people view us as a film-friendly county,” he said, adding that he expects the industry will continue to be a strong part of the local economy, generating impacts from crews in town and from tourist activity that springs from fans visiting local sites featured in films.

Bridges said he’s enjoyed his time in Petaluma.

“There’s been a lot of great hospitality,” he said. “I love the weather and the mountains and the fresh air and I love the wine and the food ... what I love the most are the farms and farm-to-table restaurants. I’m a foodie.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)

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