As one of the protagonists in Marten Persiel’s This Ain’t California points out at the beginning, the story of Denis ‘Panik’ Paraceck starts with a legend concerning a talented yet troubled red-haired boy who then happened to become a rebellious skateboard hero in East Germany. Truth is, Denis didn’t actually exist but revealing the simple fact is giving nothing away as, strictly speaking, This Ain’t California tells about a much greater legend: the myth of a vibrant skateboarding subculture that flourished in the East during the late 1980s, created and celebrated by the ‘cool kids from Alexanderplatz’, a group of skate enthusiasts for whom riding ‘wheel-boards’ was more than just having fun. For them, it became a liberation, the ideal means of shaking off the overbearing pressure to perform, and to escape the daily grind of life under the Communist regime.
Controversially presented as a ‘hybrid documentary’, the film follows Denis from his childhood in Olvenstedt, a dismal pre-fab housing settlement near Magdeburg, in the late 1970s until the fall of the Wall in 1989. We are told that after his athletic potential was noticed at the age of six, Denis went through an intensive swimming training programme coached by his authoritarian, hard-ass father, who had himself been part of the Olympic squad. He was destined to join a specialist youth sports academy, but when his best friend Nico moved to Berlin in the mid-80s, Denis jumped at the chance and followed him. This is when things really kicked off for the two hobby skaters, who had built their first ‘board with wheels on it’ out of a pair of roller skates and the curved backrest of an old school chair made of laminated wood.
Cheekily charming, fast paced and well edited with a catchy retro soundtrack, Persiel’s film takes an invigorating look behind the ‘scene’ on the eastern side of the bricks and barbed wire to make his point: in contrast to the propaganda of East Germany’s rigorous education, sports and work ethic, skateboarding was not about being bigger, better and faster than everyone else in the world, but about people’s freedom to do as they liked and dreamed – at least as long as they felt the board accelerating rapidly beneath their feet on the cracked cement.
The film’s structure is based on conversations with Denis’s closest friends, who get together for his funeral in 2011 and exchange memories with the help of private (or at least seemingly private) home videos and family photographs, black and white animation and extensive TV archive footage. The mix of touching personal story, history and nostalgia works remarkably well throughout; if anything it makes you wonder at times how much material there was to draw from given that film stock was ‘rare as gold dust’ in the East. That said, while the protagonists deal fairly openly with any speculations (‘My dad supposedly got it free from “business trips”. Who knows?’), it would have been nice if Persiel had been equally transparent about his method of mixing fact and fiction. In particular, it is essential to know (and it becomes quite obvious during the film) that some of the archive footage had to be recreated, with the director casting German model and professional skater Kai Hillebrand to portray Denis, and that his life story, as recalled in the film, is a construct of three (or more) different people. At least, Persiel now admits that everything that is in the film has happened to somebody, in some way – just not to Denis.
Yet, whether faux found footage or not, This Ain’t California is a joy ride, and not only for skateboarders or anyone else who experienced life on either side of the Berlin Wall. And perhaps it is wrong to approach the film by questioning its authenticity rather than accepting the fact that memory is always blurred, flawed and rarely complete. In the end, Persiel has crafted a film that is riveting and moving and proves remarkably ‘genuine’ in the way it evokes a time and a certain attitude towards life. That the rest is more or less a myth only makes it all the more fascinating.
Watch the trailer: