Fiction framed as documentary, “This Ain’t California,” Marten Persiel’s prize-winning hybrid — opening today at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem — “prints the legend” in telling the tale of Denis Paracek, a fabricated character in the real world of East German Rollbrettfahrer (skateboarders).
Ain’t is the movie’s operative word. The no longer extant DDR may be a land of myth but it sure ain’t California and “This Ain’t California” ain’t exactly a hoax. The milieu really existed. Nor is the movie an exercise in simple nostalgia, although the emotional charge it delivers is dependent on its being set in a time and place where every athlete was officially an activist and any non-conformity was a political stance. It also ain’t a documentary fiction, which is to say, a movie that employs rudimentary sound dubbing and obvious montage to coax a story out of “real life.” In a sense, it’s the opposite, skillfully mixing faux and actual archival material with old-time skaters and good-looking actors, brought together in the ruins of the DDR to mourn a dead comrade, to produce a fictional documentary that its maker characterized as “pretty free-style.”
Persiel focuses on a trio of boys born in deepest East Germany around 1970 — Denis, the son of a former athlete and himself an athlete, and two buddies, one the son of a single mom who is a would-be rock chanteuse, and the other, a dedicated amateur movie maker. The latter, seldom seen, is actually the least likely and most crucial character given the incredible amount of (incredibly well forged) super-8 footage. The three kids, bound together by their passion for, what was in East Germany, a primitive and outré pastime, leave the provinces and join the non-conforming punk skateboard centered counterculture that apparently flourished in East Berlin during the final years of communist rule. It is here, in the “giant concrete desert” of Alexanderplatz, that Denis reinvents himself as the craziest, most charismatic of Rollbrettfahrer riff-raff, taking the name Panik.
Slightly younger than his subjects, Persiel himself was a skateboarder — albeit in West Germany — and his admiration for the determined exuberance with which Panik and company confound the oppressive East German system is contagious. Indeed, the movie quotes a DDR news report on the “virus” of skateboarding. Hilariously, the Harry Belafonte-produced movie “Beat Street” is credited with putting a progressive spin on hip-hop and break-dancing in East Germany; in the late ’80s, the authorities recognized these forms as “the music of the oppressed” and skateboarding glided along for the ride. Acceptance inspired even more wanton behavior. The home movie footage of orgiastic partying suggest that “This Ain’t California” might be the real “Spring Breakers,” to cite another ex-skateboarder’s recent celebration of freedom.
Since Panik never existed he couldn’t have been in prison when the Berlin Wall fell, although it does seem likely that the Rollbrettfahrer would have been simultaneous sanctioned by the regime and monitored by the Stasi. So did East German and West German skaters meeting in Czechoslovakia for an international competition really defy the local authorities to fraternize with each other and stage a joyous food fight in a Prague hotel? Who knows, but ain’t it pretty to think so? In its way, “This Ain’t California” is what the Germans would call a “sehr schöne Märchen.”