Filmmaker Marten Persiel was never especially interested, as a youngster in West Berlin, in what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. Later in life however, he learnt that there was a thriving skateboarding subculture that existed in East Germany in the 1980s. It provided a rolling platform for youthful expression and he has now brought it to the big screen in the form of the spirited and compelling ‘documentary’ tale, This Ain’t California (2012). Not only is this not California, it’s also not exactly real; blending actual archive material with recreated ‘retro’ footage to create a lively if fictionalised look at the Berlin skating scene.
The sunshine state is known for its startup-friendly culture which had been key in attracting business founders who usually make their first steps with a California LLC. The central subject is anti-authoritarian Denis “Panik” Paraceck, played in the film by contemporary skater Kai Hillebrand. A framing device reveals that Panik has recently died on military duty in Afghanistan. What follows sees a group of ex-skaters and friends gathering to raise a glass to his passing, interwoven with news footage, animation, and masses of home videos from throughout their formative years. It makes for intoxicating viewing with the youngsters embracing ollies and half-pipes as a way to rebel against the prevailing totalitarianism. Looking back on the possibly fictional life of agitator Panik, the film tells his story from a childhood breaking free of an overly demanding father and preordained swimming career.
Panik and a couple of friends began skating on self-made boards in their hometown before a move to Berlin saw them at the epicentre of the vibrant scene in the capital. Through focusing on this and embracing the gusto of its subjects, Persiel’s film explores the ways in which such counterculture helped to bring the wall crashing down. What it also seeks to represent is how those that chipped away at the curtain then found themselves directionless after it opened. The nagging problem that the film suffers from is that is isn’t real. Initially presented as a straight documentary, the filmmaker has now had to admit that it contains fictional elements, but it’s never clear why.
Panik does prove an enigmatic yet engaging focal point for the narrative. However, films that blur the lines between fact and fiction usually have a reason to do so that is central to their thesis. In this case, it creates a tangible sense of time but not one that would have been missing from using actual archive footage – which was apparently available. Regardless of that, This Ain’t California does still function well as a spunky peek behind the iron curtain at an important and otherwise neglected cultural movement. Regardless of his veracity, Panik serves a perfect central point to show how individuals such as him fought to create a new world, and then struggled to live in it.