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Year: 2011
Country: Germany
Language: German
Director: Marten Persiel
Screenplay: Marten Persiel, Ira Wedel
Cinematography: Felix Leiberg
Animation: Sasa Zivkovic
Music: Lars Damm, Troy von Balthasar
Runtime: 90 min
Trailer: Trailer 1 and Trailer 2
Film’s official website: This Ain’t California

This Ain’t California had its UK premiere at the Raindance Film Festival (London) on September 27, 2012. Details here. It also screened in German cinemas this summer and has been shown at a number of international film festivals. It will be the closing film at the annual Berlin & Beyond Festival in San Francisco on October 4, 2012.

A few years back the International Baccalaureate (IB) issued a quote for its students the world round to discuss in their Theory of Knowledge examination essays: “History is part myth, part hope and part reality”. Der Spiegel, a German-language weekly from the popular press, missed the lesson, writing the following in its review of This Ain’t California:

Zu rasant, um wahr zu sein: Der preisgekrönte Film “This Ain’t California” über die Skater-Szene in der DDR kommt als Dokumentation daher. Dabei ist vieles erfunden und nachgestellt. (Translation: “Too daring to be true: The award-winning film ‘This Ain’t California’ about the skateboarding scene in the German Democratic Republic pretends to be a documentary. Much however is invented and reproduced.”) (quote source)

While the criticism is understandable to a degree – the filmmakers should have been clearer on the fact that the film also contains reenacted scenes rather than only historical footage – the reviewers still missed out on an important message here. Namely that when it comes to history, there are no such things as ‘truth’ or ‘objectivity’. Our perspectives are inevitably coloured, as we experience what becomes history one day through a particular filter – that of our own identity, situation and background. History also lives on through memory, which equally is a limited as well as highly subjective device. This Ain’t California precisely works so well because it provides an idiosyncratic glimpse of Germany and its divided East/West past through the very particular lens of the skateboarding subculture in the Germanic Democratic Republic, a perspective that for most will be completely alien after the one-sided vision that has likely been drummed into us about life on the other side of the wall (history, to use another IB quote, is “written by the winners” – and  ‘winners’ the skaters of the Alexanderplatz certainly were not).

Denis “Panik”: Rebel of the east.

That there is myth, This Ain’t California acknowledges from the start, commencing with a section entitled “Die Legende” (“The Legend”). It’s the legend of Denis “Panik” Panicek (“Panik” also being the German word for “panic”), a young boy who escapes his father’s authoritarian hand by jumping out of a window located on the sixth floor. These details may have been exaggerated in the memory of a child, Denis himself may have been merely fibbing, but it matters not: what matters is that he meets Dirk and Nico, who are whizzing about on homemade skateboards in a bleak, concrete slab courtyard, and joins in. So begins a special, life-altering friendship that lasts nearly a decade, falling to pieces only when freedom begins (roughly quoting the lyrically phrased film synopsis here: “eine besondere Freundschaft, die sich verliert als die Freiheit beginnt”) – i.e. the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

Back then, the boys, perhaps 10, 11 years old, lived in Olvenstedt near Magdeburg, a town in Eastern Germany where, like elsewhere in the socialist-communist nation, skateboards were unavailable: they were frowned upon as instigators of “Unmoral, Skeptizismus und einzelgängerischen Individualismus” (“amorality, skepticism and egocentric individualism”), banned as pieces of propaganda from the morally corrupt enemy of the West (i.e. Western Germany and the USA). For the young boys, and others like them, they are however a dream, Denis in particular using skateboarding as a mental and physical outlet from the gruelling hours of pre-Olympic swim training. The equipment is made – with the help of Nico’s father – with the boys’ own hands, from the seats of plywood chairs and roller-skate wheels, and skateboarding fills their carefree summers of youth. In their teens, Denis, Dirk and Nico end up in Berlin, finding a new home at the Alexanderplatz – the place for skateboarders – and form part of the East German skateboarding scene. Skateboarding also transforms into a more serious act of self-realisation, rebellion and, eventually, liberation: every centimetre of the square, from the populated sidewalks to the prohibited rooftops, becomes skating ground, equipment parts are smuggled over the border with the help of a Finnish-German citizen and unity between East and West is demonstrated at the 1988 Euroskate, the world’s largest skating championship in Prague, when youngsters from the two Germanies, the East bloc countries and the US come together to defy post-war national divisions.

At the Alexanderplatz.

Times clearly are changing and history unfolds: dissatisfaction and tensions grow, the state crumbles until that wall – that both physical and symbolic barrier between East and West – finally falls in 1989, ushering in a new era in Germany, in Europe, indeed, worldwide. Denis himself experiences the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic only behind bars, imprisoned by the Stasi in the last days of the socialist state. When he finally gets out, the skaters of the East have lost touch with one another, Denis vanishing from the radar of his friends and resurfacing only in 2011 – dead, killed while serving for the German army in Afghanistan. It’s a shocking and unexpected end for someone, as his childhood friends observe, “der Regeln so gehasst hat wie Denis, der sich so an Autorität gerieben hat” (“who hated rules as much as Denis, who had such a problem with authority”).

This Ain’t California a masterful creation by filmmakers that know how to get the audiences into their grips and send shivers down our spines within minutes, starkly contrasting images of the defiant, maverick skaters flying through the air and of the indoctrinated mass marching like one giant entity at a meticulously choreographed GDR sports event appearing side by side in the exquisitely scored opening scene. The jury of the Berlinale had only praise for the film, commenting that

Wir verleihen den Preis ‘Dialogue en perspective’ an ‘This Ain’t California’ für seine visuelle Kraft und seinen stilsicheren Schnitt. Mit mitreißender Dynamik verbindet er eine persönliche Geschichte mit dem kollektiven Gedächtnis der DDR. Selten wurde man so großartig manipuliert. (“We award the ‘Dialoge en perspective’ prize to ‘This Ain’t California’ for its visual power and stylistically confident editing. It combines a personal story with the collective memory of the GDR through an infectious dynamic. Rarely have we been manipulated so magnificently.” My translation.)

Unusual perspective: animated black & white sequences.

The varied visual style, which uses stretches of animated sequences in addition to archival film material and reshot scenes, is complemented by a superb score – songs evocative of another era that also hint at the director’s diverse filmmaking pedigree (which includes music clips and commercials). The only thing that is lost in translation is the delightfully characteristic Berlin accent and some of the remarkably eloquent (possibly scripted in part) dialogue of the original.

This Ain’t California may have its factual flaws, but it is a (semi-)documentary like no other. Watch and you will never look at Germany – or skateboarding – quite the same way again.

Overall verdict: Part tribute to the life story of an individual, part recollection of Germany’s divided East/West past through the lens of the skating subculture, This Ain’t California is a fresh, intimate and dazzling documentary to watch more than once. Much recommended.

Rating: 9/10

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