“This ain’t California” Rock ’n’ roll on wheels
By the mid-1980s, teenagers from the former East Germany (DDR) had discovered the skateboard. It gave them a sense of liberation from the old rules and rivalries. “This ain’t California” is a touching film about friendship, youth and freedom.
Longhaired teenagers roll on skateboards across Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, the heart of the prototype socialist republic. It is a place where tidy masses celebrate the achievements of socialism while East Berliners purposefully go about their state-organized daily lives. The skaters hop their boards over benches and bomb down the triangular ramps of the TV tower. As a Stasi (former secret police) operative you would have no choice: keep those boys under surveillance. Even the passersby appear a bit confused. “We were an attraction,” comments the narrator in a Berlin accent as the Super 8-style film flickers across the screen. “You could see in the peoples’ faces that they weren’t sure what to think of us. Normal life consisted of doing something to achieve some sort of goal. You work to buy food with the money. You eat so you can live. You walked in order to get somewhere. What we were doing didn't fit into the mold and it really threw them off.” Having fun? In this state of workers and farmers? The voice of the narrator sounds a bit puzzled by his own audaciousness and the utopian expectations. “We were like extraterrestrials in the DDR.”
“Our beautiful hideous concrete playground”The images look exotic even today. For anyone who grew up in West Germany in the 1980s and had never been “over there”, the DDR was about as gray as the walls that surrounded it. Most people simply assumed that people in East Germany had just resigned themselves to the entire thing. That is precisely where this film begins, showing people who created little niches within the rigid system. “Skateboarding was a way for us to reinterpret the gray, boring world around us. We made a playground out of it. It was our beautiful, enigmatic and hideous playground DDR,” the narrator explains. “Skating isn’t a protest against anything. It's just a way to hold on to something childlike.”
This ain’t California is more like a music video than a classic documentary film. The images pass by in rapid sequences while private Super 8 footage from the DDR is seamlessly edited together with new footage adjusted to suit in black-and-white and color, with animation sequences, excerpts from DDR television programs and interviews. It is accompanied by a soundtrack that works sort of like the sound of waves in a surf video. There are no statistics to back up theories, and no sociologists or anthropologists trying to expound on the phenomenon of skating in the DDR. The majority of the film is from the subjective perspective of three friends, augmented by statements from a number of individuals who were actually involved in the skating scene in East and West Germany. The greater story is then framed within the context of Denis’ funeral in Berlin, where all the old skater friends reunite after 20 years.
No heroesThe storyteller is repeatedly in awe of Denis, of his indomitability, his unswerving passion. Still, Martin Persiel’s film is not a heroes-like-us story about teens with skateboards who jump the Berlin wall or bring Communism to its knees. This ain’t California is the story of three friends just doing what they love doing. Nico, Dirk and Denis. They lived in a housing block near Magdeburg and then in East Berlin. The skateboards were a perfect medium for them – perhaps because they were everywhere and not just in the DDR. In the beginning the boys made their own boards. The wheels were from old roller skates. Then they started getting boards from the West, from friends who smuggled them over the border. For Denis the skateboards meant more than for the others. His talent as a swimmer dictated his life: daily training and daily drills under the strict supervision of his father. It is not really what the 10-year-old likes to do. Skating opens up a contrary world for Denis far away from the performance pressure, the rules and the competition.
Between a documentary and a feature filmThis ain’t California was a big success at film festivals including this year's Berlinale and the International Documentary Film Festival in Munich. Some critics complained that the faux-original scenes were not identified as such; without that they imply that the film is made up of real archived footage. Some even doubted the identity of this Denis boy. Did he really exist? The filmmakers are tight-lipped on the subject.
Despite all that, This ain’t California has immense strengths, precisely because it is emotional and subjective. Those jerky, flickering images are like a code that is understood by people who grew up in the 1970s and 80s – regardless of the content. It has a nostalgic effect. It is not about the long lost DDR, it is about youth: The most intense and emotional time in the life of modern humans, a time that is gone before we have a chance to prepare ourselves for it. This ain’t California brings our youth back. The fall of the Wall brought not only freedom but also marked the end of the 1980s, the end of the rebellion, the skate scene and youth. The friends lose track of each other, but if this film has any message, then it is this: The youth does what it must. It creates its own space – no matter where and no matter when.