A documentary celebrating the world of skateboarding in the German Democratic Republic during the 1970s and '80s. 

Captivating docudrama skates between truth and fiction.

GERMAN FILM FESTIVAL: I completely fell for Marten Persiel’s This Ain’t California, and by 'fell’ I mean that I liked the film greatly and that I was also taken in by its subterfuge. Is there a name for the movie’s genre? This Ain’t California, which has been a success on the festival circuit both before and after it was a topic of debate, is a kind of fictionalised documentary – the word 'hybrid’ has been used to describe the use of an actor (or possibly actors), contemporary staging of supposedly period footage and stage-managed sequences.

It’s not clear how much of the film is real

Set in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) during the communist state’s final years in the late 1980s, the skilful mockumentary examines – or is that recreates? – the rise of skateboarding as an underground youth culture and the story of the boys who literally built their own boards and defied the state by pursuing the limits of speed and gravity. 'There was certainly enough concrete around," one participant declares, and the brutal architecture of the state is denied its purpose simply by rolling across it.

The framing device is the leader of the gang, the charismatic rebel Denis 'Panik’ Paraceck, a furious teen who quits competitive swimming despite being groomed for national representation and becomes a galvanising figure. When his former friends discover that the anti-authoritarian figure they once knew was killed in Afghanistan in 2011 while serving with the German army they reconvene with a vigil of sorts, talking about his life and the scene he helped create before attending his funeral.

It’s not clear how much of the film is real, however you define the term, and how much is invented. Persiel is keeping quiet, although it’s generally acknowledged that virtually all of the 8 and 16mm archival footage was staged and shot for the movie, and that the older, wild Denis Paraceck who commands the screen is actually skateboarder and model Kai Hillebrandt. It’s not clear if Paraceck actually existed or if he’s a composite character or completely fictionalised.

It was only towards the end of the movie that I had moments of suspicion, as much for the persistent, telling quality of footage supposedly shot by an inexperienced teenager as the way that an exchange among Paraceck’s mourners felt scripted. But the resulting film may well leave you impressed rather than deceived; wherever the parts are from they’re expertly combined, edited together to create a seamless story that is emotionally resonant.

This Ain’t California captures the monochromatic grind of life in the GDR and how the best kind of resistance was a supposed kid’s pursuit. The real danger isn’t lack of authenticity, but rather that it might lessen the historic understanding of the state security service, the Stasi, who in scenes show here – again, probably invented – come across more as dogged bureaucrats monitoring the 'unorganised rollersports scene" rather than the brutal fist of a totalitarian regime. Then again, obscuring the truth and projecting a vivid new reality, as the film does, also happened to be a Stasi specialty. However you choose to define it, This Ain’t California remains fascinating viewing.


1 hour 30 min