This Ain’t California ***1/2 (out of five)
Marten Persiel’s elaborate ruse This Ain’t California purports to be a documentary about the birth and growth of the skateboarding scene in the GDR and East Berlin in the 1980s, particularly following its most dynamic member, “Panik”, through huge amounts of contemporary Super 8 footage, archival propaganda and television material from the period, and new interviews with Panik’s old crew. The thing of it is, Panik never existed, the old crew are actors, and, most impressively – most impressively – the Super 8 footage is mainly, or entirely, deliberately shot for this film. It’s a fiction, but one that illuminates a period and a scene, supplying footage – and a mythical leader – where there wasn’t either.
As a style of storytelling, the film’s grandparent would be Zelig, Woody Allen’s excellent and very funny story of a “human chameleon”, which similarly faked old footage to blend in with footage from the time. (Interestingly, the recent film No also uses very outdated video camera technology to match its shots with footage from Pinochet’s plebiscite in Chilé in the 1980s). As a “fake” documentary, it got me. I saw it believing I was seeing a “true” documentary, and I fell for it hook, line and sinker, telling some skateboarding friends about how extraordinary it was that one of these skaters had a father who was a diplomat, who was thus able to supply him with so much Super 8 film that the entire rise and fall of this East Berlin scene was documented so thoroughly. It seemed to be too good to be true, and it was.
Nevertheless, and even knowing the artifice, it’s an excellent and extremely enjoyable film. Indeed, knowing the artifice, it’s way more impressive. Persiel also uses beautiful hand-drawn animations to tell his story in what amounts to a kaleidoscope. It speaks to the last days of the GDR, the heady rush of skater rebellion, and myth-making in equal measure. However true it isn’t, it’s a lovely evocation of what might have been.
This Ain’t California plays as part of the Festival Of German Films from Friday 3rd May. Details http://www.goethe.de/ins/au/lp/prj/fia/ffg/fil/thi/enindex.htm
You can hear my interview with Marten Persiel on MOVIELAND on Saturday 11th May at 5pm on your local ABC radio station around Australia or here: http://www.abc.net.au/sydney/programs/webcam_radio.htm?ref=listenliveradio