This Ain’t CaliforniaCultureCinemaMovie reviews
This Ain’t California is a curious and compelling retrospective portrait of skateboarding subculture in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), understood through the main subject Denis Paracek and those who were close to him. This is a story about the creative powers of youth, and the freedom granted through the medium of the skateboard.
Far from fun-loving California where the sport originated, before the grey background of East Germany skateboarding offered an escape from the bleak environment. The rebellious sound of the clattering skateboard against the hard concrete was a sound that helped fill the eerie silence of that restrictive and censored world. While the film offers a history of the subculture through personal anecdotes and montages, it is done so in an unfocused manner. This does add to the charm of the film as it is not solely about the development of skateboarding in East Germany but the formation of a whole vibrant youth culture, with its relationship with breakdancing and hip-hop, along with the subsequent reaction of the state to control skateboarding by turning it into a formalised sport.
These are all interesting details that are skimmed over for the advancement of the film’s narrative framework that focuses on Denis and his friends – they were on the frontline, breaking down the divide between East and West through skateboarding. Berlin became the place where engaging and converging with skateboarders from the West was made possible, the sites of Alexanderplatz and 61 Karl-Marx-Allee main meeting points. They were places where skaters demonstrated publicly a rebellious defiance, epitomising ideal freedom. As one notes in the film, for ordinary people “we were a projection screen for their own dreams”.
Yet among all the rebellious fun and exchange is the personal tragedy of the charismatic and troubled boy with dyed bright blonde hair – Denis Paracek (aka Panik) – whose defiance of authority leaves him imprisoned by the Stasi not long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the “greatest day in German post-war history”. He is then said to have lost his way in the 90s, and found himself washed up in the German army in 1999 and to have died in Afghanistan in 2011.
This all sounds like the stuff of fiction, and that is because it is. The director Marten Persiel calls the film a “poetic documentary”; it is scarily convincing in the way it lures you in with carefully crafted Super 8 footage. No doubt the subculture existed and so too did people like Denis, but this film is more than a half-lie. Whether or not this film lies to compellingly expose a certain truth, the seemingly stark realism of the staged interview scenes of Denis’ old friends reminiscing around a bonfire cannot but leave the viewer feeling somewhat used. But it makes for good cinema!
This Ain’t California is released nationwide on the 6th December 2013.
Watch the trailer for This Ain’t California here: