2012, Dir. Marten Persiel
2012, Berlin. A group of friends reunite to mourn the death of their childhood friend, Denis, who was killed on a mission in Afghanistan. Having lost contact with each other for years, the group are all astounded by the tragic incident, but also by the fact that he grew up to become a soldier. When they knew him, back in the days of the German Democratic Republic, he was an anti-establishment wild boy, a free-spirited troublemaker; he was Panik, the hero of their teenage years.
The morose opening gives way to exciteful tones as Panik’s portrait is woven throughout a fast-paced, seamlessly edited mixture of fiction, found footage -shot in beautifully wistful super 8- and animated re-enactments -great work by Sasha Zivkovic who evokes an air of mysticism in his moving sketches. This is a tribute to the pure joy of a long lost youth, the liberating feeling of being careless and full of enthusiasm, and also, of belonging to a close-knit community brought together by a shared passion; skateboarding.
Contrarily to the GDR’s authoritatively imposed union under the communist dogma, this group of kids formed a camaraderie of their own, re-inventing East Berlin’s brutalist architectural landscape as their playground, re-creating the trappings of Western popular culture through their own DIY ethos -and having tons of fun while doing it.
This Ain’t California indeed, as acts like withdrawing from a children’s swimming championship or, skating aimlessly in the city’s central square, that would be seen as non-complex options in a liberal environment, take some form of political defiance when put in the GDR’s social context. Whereas the film up to this point could be described as a sort of The Big Chill meets Goodbye Lenin!, its indifference in wielding criticism against the ideas of either Communism or Capitalist Neoliberalism fends off comparison towards the latter. While we are encouraged to laugh out to the GDR’s attempt to model skateboarding as an Olympic sport, for instance, the full-blown commercialisation of it in the Western part of Europe and the US is not touched upon.
The director’s, Marten Persiel, decision to tackle on this kind of socio-political issues only on the surface, could be seen as somewhat problematic considering the film’s context. However, This Ain’t California does not pretend to be anything more than what it is: a recounting of a singular time and place in the life of a bunch of kids who immersed themselves in an exciting, new-born subculture, while growing up in, what is considered by many, ‘the wrong side’ of the wall.
Ultimately, the film is less about going back to the early 80s East Berlin and more about transmitting the viewer into a past drawn from a more personal experience; the feeling of seeing the world again as a teenager, all restless and hungry for exploration, and the ecstatic joy of a new discovery, even if it is merely that of screwing wheels to a wooden board. “You relate to things differently when you build them yourself”, says one of the characters in the film, something widely forgotten today, surely.
This Ain’t California is a fascinating saga of a community that came to full glory and faded away. A quite small, perhaps, part of East Berlin’s history, albeit major on a personal scale, for the young lives lived there, and visualised in a most enthralling way.