Friday, April 12, 2013

Marten Persiel's THIS AIN'T CALIFORNIA: skateboarding in the GDR makes for an eye, mind and heart-opening experience

Please don't, when you discover that THIS AIN'T CALIFORNIA deals with skateboarding, relegate it, as I nearly did, to the status of "Are you kidding?" This really hybrid documentary -- from German filmmaker Marten Persiel, who directed and co-wrote it (with Ira Wedel) -- which won the Dialogue en Perspective prize at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival is certainly among the best of this year that I've seen so far (This has been a terrific week for docs, what with The Revolutionary also opening today.) Except, is it really a documentary? Hired actors, recreated "archival" footage, and a main character who may or may not even have existed -- these are just some of the major quibbles brought to the fore after the movie won its Berlinale prize.

Knowing none of this going into the film, I simply sat there and watched, slowly growing more amazed, surprised and intellectually and emotionally wrapped up in the life and times of a young man named Denis (later to become known as Panik) who -- set by his overbearing and uber-controlling dad on-course to become a champion swimmer for the glory of East Germany -- swerves off into skateboarding, girls, guts and glory before dying as a soldier in Afghanistan in 2011. We learn all this very early on; at the conclusion, the filmmakers dedicated their work simply to:  Denis 1970-2011.

Now that I know that Denis (below and further below) may have been either partially or wholly fabricated, I'm a little pissed off. Yet were I to take the film as fiction, I think I would be almost equally as impressed as when I took it for an out-and-out documentary.

What it is, in any case, is a compilation of archival (or "recreated" archival) footage, interviews with old skateboarders and friends of Denis/Panik (or not, as some of these are evidently actors), wonderfully animated sections, and a terrific soundtrack made up of dozens of good songs -- all directed toward telling this amazing tale about a fascinating "character" and his "times."

Denis' early days are depicted and narrated well enough so that his troubles with his dad and his subsequent rebellion makes perfect sense on a psychological level, as does his joining the army after all that has happened (including the collapse of the German Democratic Republic and the reunification of Germany). In fact, so much of the film is so beautifully narrated -- both written and spoken: "Freestyle! That word just sounded like the West!" -- that it's little wonder the movie "took in" spectators and judges alike.

The picture This Ain't California paints of the GDR, its response to skateboarding ("Our streets are not for having fun!") and its harassing of outsiders also seems quite truthful, especially given the other films about East Germany that we've seen over the years: The Tunnel, Good-bye Lenin! and The Lives of Others. Along the way, we learn so many telling little details (the role that the movie Beat Street had on collective solidarity of the GDR) that an entire culture is brought to life. Granted, this was a "forced" culture created from a "fake" place: a kind of prison that nonetheless housed real people for several decades. The fact that this maybe "fake" documentary (but very fine film) has emerged from just such a place offers not a little irony -- as well as some great entertainment.

If you want to learn more about the film and this sly director, there's an interesting Q&A from Kate Gellene via Rooftop Films that you can find by clicking here. To learn more about the controversy surrounding the veracity of the film, click here. Meanwhile, the movie opens theatrically today, Friday, April 12, at the Maysles Cinema here in New York City for a week's run, screening daily at 7:30 pm, with a 4pm matinee, tomorrow, Saturday, April 13. There is also expected to be a limited rollout of the film nationwide in the weeks and months to come

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