Billed as a documentary, yet centered on a person who doesn't actually exist, This Ain't California chronicles a ragtag group of East German skateboarders who helped pioneer the sport in the shadow of the Iron Curtain. After their former leader, the anarchic, baby-faced Denis “Panik” Paraceck is shot and killed in Afghanistan, the now-adult skaters gather at one of their former haunts to discuss his legacy as well as their own rise to prominence.
Questions about the film's self-definition as “documentary” arose after a screening at Berlinale in 2012, forcing director Marten Persiel to eventually admit that much of the film's Super 8 and 16mm archival footage, which shows Panik and his cohorts skating, partying, and generally wreaking havoc amid the cemented cityscape of East Berlin, was actually shot in the present day with a group of young German skaters and various non-actors. Among the retired skaters who deify Panik are a few actors, and Panik himself is portrayed by German model Kai Hillebrandt.
These revelations aside, This Ain't California isn't a complete hoax. There absolutely was a vibrant underground skateboard scene in East Germany during the '80s, which coincided with the rise of punk rock, hip-hop, break-dancing, and other outsider movements. The film is an engaging, scrupulously formed look at alternative lifestyles in the wake of political and social duress, and Persiel expertly recreates the milieu of East Berlin in the years leading up to Germany's reunification with his distinctly vintage yet authentic aesthetic.
The ethics (or lack thereof) behind docu-fiction, a debate that began with Robert Flaherty mixing staged sequences with documentary footage for Nanook of the North, are ultimately inconsequential in relation to a film such as this. The possibility of an ontological “real” or “truth” in cinema is illusory at best, as expounded in films like On the Bowery and Rite of Spring and by filmmakers such as Jean Rouch and Abbas Kiarostami. In other words, it's imprudent to rebuke a film for being “fake” when its true aim is to capture a mood, or, in the specific case of This Ain't California, an ideal. Ultimately, the film is an examination of countercultures, the ways they form, how they prosper as communities, and what threatens their foundation. Panik himself may not have existed, but as a symbol of resilience and individualism, he's the ideal representation of the attitude held by the young East German skaters. They embodied nonconformity even as the German Democratic Republic, which suppressed individualism in all forms, attempted to inhibit their sport.
While the film is deeply romantic and nostalgic, possessing a genuine reverence for youth and rebellion, it's also something of a tragedy. As Persiel illustrates, the movement crumbled along with Berlin Wall, and as the Federal Republic of Germany had a significantly less authoritative stance on skateboarding, the defiant East German skaters suddenly found themselves without a rebellion. Most of them landed real jobs, got married, and settled into conventional lives, but fondly and wistfully recall their early days. And with This Ain't California, Persiel honors their past and cements their legend.