This Ain't California (Martin Piersel, 2012, Germany)

This Ain’t California is a fascinating faux documentary by Marten Piersel, chronicling the very real skateboarding subculture that emerged in the GDR during the 1980s. The film hinges around a fictional protagonist named Denis, whom I’ve learned may be a composite of several real-life skateboarders from the era. At the beginning of the film, we’ve learned that Dennis has just died in the War in Afghanistan. His friends reunite on the occasion of his death and begin providing the details of his story, thus framing the narrative.
While one could argue that there is an inherent deceitfulness to Piersel’s choice not to explicitly introduce the film as fiction, in the case of This Ain’t California, it is not so bothersome. More than chronicling any one individual, Piersel is seeking to replicate the feeling – both texturally and emotionally – of a bygone era. And his film does just that. Through a combination of recreated skateboarding footage, actual archival footage from the time, and an eclectic soundtrack from the era, Piersel traces Denis’s move from the ordered life of small-town East Germany to the vibrant scene of Berlin.
In the process, we witness how subcultures develop, and how skateboarding represented a form of rebellion for the young people who participated in it behind the Iron Curtain – a world in which the streets were not meant for playing. In a time where everything required order and direction, skateboarding “didn’t make sense”. Gradually we see how skateboarding transitioned from a source of rebellion to a more commodified sport, mirroring the gradual thaw and eventual collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Perhaps the most moving aspect of the film is Piersel’s suggestion that life after the fall of the Iron Curtain was an even bigger struggle than life before. We see this reflected in Denis’s trajectory, as he seeks to find meaning during the 1990s before his energies are ultimately co-opted by the military endeavors of the German state.



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