When I watched This Ain’t California, all I knew was that it was a documentary about skateboarders in the GDR (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany) in the 1980s. Sounds cool, right? Maybe Dogtown meets The Lives of Others? I have a personal interest as well, in that I have strong ties to family from what was then West Germany, the city of Dortmund in North Rhine-Westphalia. I was curious to learn more about what was happening in East Germany during my childhood, and what better way than through rebellious youth culture? As the film played I took pages of notes, finding myself drawn in by the ambitious editing and complex, compelling visuals.
The film opens with a dedication “to Denis ‘PANIK’ Paraceck 1970 — 2011,” and the loose plot builds around a group of his skateboarding buddies who reunite for his funeral. They reminisce over a bonfire, while the film cuts back to unbelievably good Super-8mm film footage that tracks the skateboarders from small-town childhood to adolescence in East Berlin. Archival footage and animation round out the story, filling in some of the political and social landscape of life in the GDR. The music cues are apt, from Berlin punk bands like Die Ärzte and Rammstein forerunner Feeling B or skater Claus Grabke’s Eight Dayz, to GDR rappers The Electric Beat Crew and the more famous synthpop of Alphaville. While I was watching I remember thinking how impressed I was with the film’s flow and flawless aesthetics. It was all so interesting. Kids shooting Super-8mm skate films? Berlin’s Alexanderplatz as a freaky piazza full of trick skaters and breakdancers? The DJ-skate show that toured the GDR as The Hurrican Trio? The menacing interest taken by the government in the nascent world of Rollbrettfahrer (skateboarders), co-opting the sport as an expression of national pride? Czech Republic skate competitions, covert border crossings, and the fall of the Berlin Wall? After it ended I started Googling This Ain’t California, and that’s when things went downhill.
The press notes call the film a “hybrid documentary” that “redefines the genre,” which is a coy way of saying that the film misrepresents what it is. It turns out that those unbelievable Super-8mm clips were actually recreations shot by a professional crew for this film. The central figure, wild child skater PANIK, is played by a slashie skater/model from Berlin. Simply put, I have no idea what was actual archival footage, and some sort of real representation of the past, and what was the handiwork of talented creatives from the skateboarding and advertising industries. Anything interesting I felt that I ‘learned’ from the film about Germany’s history has to be chucked out the window because I have to assume it’s all fabricated. I was pretty baffled about how to review a film that left me feeling like the victim of a cheeky Vice prank.
Others have argued that This Ain’t California is playing with the form of documentary, and challenging preconceptions about the genre. Meh. The thing is, the film is good: it’s expertly edited, entertaining, immersive, and fun. But I was also fascinated by the story of Germany the film was telling. Not to get dramatic, but there has been so much silence, shame, and willful forgetting in the post-war narratives of German history, and I was excited about the open, effusive, punk rock energy the filmmakers brought to their story — and equally as let down when I realized it was largely fiction. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine director Marten Persiel remains ambiguous about his intentions, blankly stating that he “didn’t really care about what is ‘allowed’ in a documentary,” and that “it’s not political education. It’s like skateboarding.” I give him and his team ample credit for that: they really did apply the DIY, no rules aesthetic of skateboarding to the production of this film, and its tone, energy, and creativity reflect that. But why not be honest about its fictional status rather than passing it off as a traditional documentary? The distinction may not matter to Persiel, but I would argue that it matters very much to the film’s audience.
By coincidence I happened to have seen two documentaries recently that grapple with the past and use extensive Super-8mm film footage as source material: Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, and Penny Lane’s Our Nixon. I couldn’t help but compare them to This Ain’t California. Polley’s film is a cathartic examination of family secrets, and much of the interview audio is paired with what seem to be old home movies. In the end Polley clearly reveals that these were recreations she directed with cast actors, and her candor doesn’t dilute the power of the story at all. Our Nixon is constructed from a cache of home movies shot by top aides in the Nixon administration. It draws much of its power from the unguarded glimpse it gives us into the lives of powerful men who were experts at manipulating the truth. On a level of craft Our Nixon is impressive precisely because it is entirely constructed from archival material. I’m sure the filmmakers would have loved to cast some actor to play Nixon and fill in the gaps with footage they shot themselves. But rather than bridging the limitations of the source material with recreations they went deep into archival research, a “restriction” that resulted in a film very rich in creativity as well as political education. The manipulation in This Ain’t California looks childish in comparison. If you take it as a fictional film, This Ain’t California is a fun ride. There’s probably a great documentary to be made about youth rebellion in the GDR, but this ain’t it.