Film Review: This Ain't California

Prize-winning documentary paints an affecting tale of young GDR rebels on wheels, but is marred by a busy, self-conscious aesthetic approach.

Who knew that skateboarding was such a big deal in the German Democratic Republic before the fall of the Wall? Martin Perciel’s documentary This Ain’t California explores this phenomenon, centering around a star shredder, Denis “Panik” Paracek, who led a ragtag band of East German skateboarders. This mythic figure began life as a talented boy swimmer whose fanatically aggressive father trained him relentlessly with Olympic ambitions. Denis, however, had other, far more individualistic notions and gave up swimming, left home and pioneered in Germany the sport for which he became renowned. Today, some 30 years later, the original skateboarders have a reunion in which they fondly recall the halcyon days of their youth, when their flamboyant antics briefly lit up the drably repressive Iron Curtain which enclosed them.

Perciel uses a number of devices—including animation—to flesh out his story and put it into context, some more successful than others. He’s fond of flashy-fast, panoramic montages of historical film clips (Bill Clinton, Princess Diana, 9/11, the fall of the Wall, war in the Middle East, etc.) which can be both numbing and distracting from the simple account of the past he is trying to put forth. Some controversy was aroused on the festival circuit when he admitted to mixing actual doc footage of the skaters with recreations that include Paracek being played by German model Kai Hillebrandt.

Despite the busy, fancy-schmancy mise-en-scène, the film manages to be an affecting, elegiac evocation of a feckless time now gone forever. German reunification—as well as maturity—effectively changed things forever. Most of the skateboarders wound up getting married and holding down regular jobs. As for Paracek, how he came to enlist in the army and eventually lose his life in Afghanistan adds yet more mournful thrust to the story.