BIFF 2013 - This Ain't California - Cinema Review

Still from This Ain't California
'With the narrative punctuated by interjections by a former Stasi agent, thoughts turn to just how much it is possible to achieve with a plank of wood and some wheels.'

Much of the conversation surrounding This Ain't California seems to be focused on just how much of the documentary director Marten Persiel has faked. When the film is this good though, the answer almost doesn't matter. This Ain't California is a sometimes-thrilling, occasionally moving depiction of life behind the iron curtain on the East side of Berlin in the 1970s and how a band of skaters found little ways to subvert the dominating control of the state.

It's also much more. As Persiel opens on the funeral of Panik, one of the documentary's protagonists but reportedly a completely fictionalised person, he tells a biographical tale which starts with violence, passes through rebellion and ends in death in Afghanistan. It's a very human story, a warm look at a character who went through a rebellious streak that was less pointless, more influential, but eventually abandoned his sub-culture roots to become part of the military machine. His story is illustrated by elongated interviews with skaters from the time, now comfortably settled into various middle-aged lives, any of whom could essentially 'be' Panik. To say the character isn't real is only to consider Persiel's narrative at farcical levels of literalism.

With the narrative punctuated by interjections by a former Stasi agent, thoughts turn to just how much it is possible to achieve with a plank of wood and some wheels. A surprising amount, comes the answer. The group's real successes eventually come about due to their joining of forces with their Western counterparts, better equipped and free to move around. United by a love of the sport, the resistance of oppressive forces through a sub-culture is a virulent tale, with plenty to say about the spirit of the East Germans, albeit led by a fictional figurehead.

In the end, Persiel's ninety-minutes feel perhaps a bit too long and his creation of a 'funeral' for Panik does feel like a step too far, although it does, I suppose, hold the position of representing the metaphorical death of the movement. In truth though, the persona of the skaters of East Berlin died out long before, since subsumed into comfortable, unified middle-age. That This Ain't California chooses to remember this through the medium of a long lost fable somehow feels appropriate.




The 19th Bradford International Film Festival ran from 11th to 21st April 2013 at the National Media Museum and other venues near to the city.

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