2012. A group of friends reunite at a funeral to mourn the death of their childhood friend, Denis. Killed on a mission in Afganistan, many of them didn’t realise that he had even become a soldier as they had not seen him for many years. Denis was their hero during their childhood: a rebel and a daredevil.
Flash back to East Germany in the 1980s and we view home-movie footage of a bunch of scrawny kids as Denis and his friends teach themselves to skateboard using home-built boards. ‘You relate to things differently when you build them yourself,’ they note. They didn’t have access to the fancy boards and wheels that were freely available in the West. Denis loved skateboarding. He was the most daring amongst the gang, and for him it was an escape from the rigours of his daily life. Alongside his schooling he was also being trained to become an elite swimmer and had to endure daily training sessions for hours on end under intense pressure from his father. Eventually he rebelled. Part way through a race, he simply quit. Many years later, the kids grew up and moved to Berlin, discovering the concrete joys of Alexanderplatz, a Brutalist architectural paradise for skateboarders and breakdancers. Denis reinvented himself as Panik. But in the late 1980s the Stasi were monitoring the activities of all citizens and Panik’s disdain for authority was bound to land him in trouble.
What is fascinating about This Ain’t California is that while the narrative focusses on the story of a bunch of teenagers, this rebellious microcosm of 1980s Berlin also offers us a fascinating glimpse into the social history of the time. We are, of course, shown significant historical events that occurred during that decade – Chernobyl, the Challenger disaster, Gorbachev – but the kids either seemed to be unaware of these events’ significance in world history or just didn’t really care. They were creating their own revolution, albeit with crazy clothing and bizarre dancing. Initially the young people were simply viewed with curiosity by the locals but the authorities, monitoring everyone, eventually realised that the rebellious skateboarders were actually highly skilled and could compete internationally, so they set up a national rollersports team. Which Panik despised.
But it meant that the East German team could finally manage to skate competitively outside their country at the championships in Prague. Self-taught, they had no hope of competing with some of the Western skateboarders, but that wasn’t the point. They had a chance to meet kindred spirits. It was never about politics, it was about their passion and a new-found community. In a moving scene, the friends recall a story about a Czech hotel which refused to allow the East German team to stay there, despite them having a booking. The West Germans threatened to leave if their new pals were to be kicked out, declaring, ‘We are all German.’
Although much of the film appears to show found footage, many of the sequences have actually been reconstructed, albeit with grainy super 8 stock to give an air of authenticity. These hand-held shots showing kids skateboarding along empty streets gives an immediacy to the story. The scenes are intercut with the reunion between Denis’ friends after his funeral many years later, and with animations sequences which have the effect of enhancing the myth surrounding the central character or illustrating scenes where it would be obvious that footage wouldn’t be available, such as the dramatic moment when Denis, mid-race, swims to the edge of the pool, watches the other competitors finish the race, then exits the pool and walks away.
Director Marten Persiel has created what he calls a ‘documentary tale’, a film that captures the spirit of a group of people living in the GDR of the 1980s. ‘How can anyone who wasn’t there understand how important that time was?’ A real film, but faked. But who cares? Because ultimately this is a fascinating slice of history.