Directed by Marten Persiel
Produced by Ronald Vietz and Ira Wedel
Distributed by Wide House
Marten Persiel’s This Ain’t California is a documentary following the story of a skateboarding community in East Germany in the Eighties, immediately prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. As well as including archive footage shot by the members of that community, the film uses specially recreated sequences plus personal testimonies to assess its significance.
The documentary continues a tradition of skateboarding films, both factual and fictional, the best-known of which is Stacy Peralta’s Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), the story of the Zephyr team that flourished in Southern California during the Seventies. Two earlier films, The Skateboard Kid (1993) and the sequel The Skateboard Kid II (1995) are perfunctorily plotted but contain passable action sequences, while Gus van Sant’s more recent Paranoid Park (2007), follows the same thematic path as This Ain’t California by focusing more substantially on teenage skateboarding culture (in this case, how a young member of that culture suffers following the accidental death of a security guard). Persiel’s film, however, breaks new ground by illustrating that skateboarding cultures do not necessarily have to originate in the United States. With little or no access to American cultural products during the communist period, the East German youngsters fashion a culture of their own, with homemade skateboards and a course placed in close proximity to the Berlin Wall.
This Ain’t California is very much a personal film, structured around the biography of one of the leading members of the community, Denis (“Panik”) Paracek. Now middle-aged, many of his fellow-skateboarders offer their reminiscences of how they encountered one another in a local housing development, and subsequently spent most of their spare time living and breathing the sport. Eventually they encountered fellow skateboarders from West Germany, as well as other skateboarders from Europe and the United States; and they discovered that the community was far larger than they had anticipated. In political terms, this was an important moment, as they understood how skateboarding could be identified with freedom of expression as well as rebellion against the prevailing dictatorship.
Perhaps the film’s most contentious aspect is its use of recreated sequences that consciously blur the precise distinctions between historical documentary and fiction. This technique is often associated with mockumentaries such as This is Spinal Tap (1984) or the television series The Office (UK 2001-2003, US 2005-2013) that encourage viewers to question the aesthetic conventions, epistemological assumptions and the complacencies associated with documentary. This Ain’t California does not distinguish between historical footage and newly restaged sequences, and so, has been the object of considerable criticism—especially from reviewers based in Germany. Some of the Eighties skateboarders are played by middle-aged actors, who deliver the scripted reminiscences of the real-life protagonists. Never declared (and omitted from the credits) is that the twenty-two year old model Kai Hillebrand plays Panik in some of the sequences. According to the film, his character was born in 1970, and not 1990. One critic claimed that director Persiel used such strategies to deliberately mislead viewers, a strategy that was particularly egregious in German historical films. Unlike other histories, German history “is no ordinary history. This might sound high-minded, but we shouldn’t forget Germany unleashed Hitler and was later partly dominated by Stalin. You do not need [to] conflate the crimes of the Nazi regime with those of the Soviet satellite states (under the aegis of ‘totalitarianism’ […]) to think it’s important to be watchful and agitate for an accurate historical, documentary, record of the GDR regime.” On this view an historical film about [End Page 70] Germany should try to tell the truth, otherwise it cannot be distinguished from the propagandist films produced during the Nazi or Soviet eras.
The problem with this argument is that questions of accuracy in history inevitably depend on the interpreter. In costume dramas, for instance, directors aim to provide a veneer of historical accuracy by creating historically accurate sets and...