The main difference between Exit Through the Gift Shop and This Ain’t California is that the latter’s main character has been revealed to be a fiction. Other distinctions are that it’s about skateboarding rather than street art, that it’s set in 1980s East Germany instead of 2000s L.A. and that it has an energy and spirit that’s far more captivating than Banksy’s Oscar-nominated documentary. Otherwise they share a quality where the “realness” of the story is totally inconsequential given that, true or false, it’s still the same movie and says the same things and makes us feel the same way about its subject matter.
I have to admit right away that I “fell for” the whole thing. That’s what happens when you avoid reading about a movie before you see it, I guess. All I knew was that it won a special award at Berlin last year and that it was a documentary about German skate culture. And I fell for it, too, meaning I fell in love with it. I found it to be electrifying, which can’t be ignored now that I know a lot of it is “fake.” Of course, fake isn’t a good word for the film, because co-writer/director Marten Persiel hasn’t necessarily pretended that every person in the film existed or that all the Super-8mm footage is as old as it seems.
Still, it now makes sense to me why such an exciting film with an engrossing story isn’t playing more widely or getting greater notice. It should have distribution and a marketing push from a cool company like Oscilloscope Laboratories (which picked up Exit and the recent skater-based doc Only the Young). It has a perfect score so far on Rotten Tomatoes, so it’s strange that it’s not receiving more attention. And when it is — I’m obviously already guilty of adding to this — the issue of its made up parts is the preliminary if not primary focus. Hybrid films are almost as hard to review as they are to market.
But that’s only because we need stupid classifications, a separation of fiction and non-fiction that helps us with our responses to the stories we watch. Most viewers treat characters differently if they’re real or not, and even now the full extent of which shots and sequences are pure reality and which are reenacted or written is untold. While I haven’t seen This Ain’t California with a crowd, I can imagine how it’s leaving a lot of audiences bewildered, and more so in a frustrating way than intriguing. It’d be one thing if it could still be sold on the mystery of “is it or isn’t it?” I don’t know that people are interested in that game anymore, though, and anyway it’s sort of a disservice to the movie, which is really all it needs to be for us.
This movie is about a history of skateboarding in the GDR as remembered by a group of old friends reunited for a funeral. Think The Big Chill meets Dogtown and Z-Boys (or The Lords of Dogtown, depending on how much is dramatization). The person being laid to rest is a guy nicknamed “Panik,” and he’s a main figure in the nostalgic narrative. Persiel gives it to us in flashbacks of Super-8mm footage and rotoscope animation compiled frenetically underneath the modern-day testimonial interviews, in voiceover, and a non-stop soundtrack of German pop, techno and punk music from the era. Occasionally we come back to the friends sitting around a fire reminiscing or meet a former Stasi agent giving his perspective in traditional talking-head fashion.
Eventually the plot moves from housing projects in the suburbs to the plazas of East Berlin, namely Alexanderplatz, with its breakdancers and other subculture kids taking advantage of the concrete wonderland of its Modernist architecture. Panik hung out in the square with his friends, both those from his childhood, such as the most prominent narrator, and new acquaintances, like a mustached, hand-standing sex god named Patrick (his semi-documented conquests are straight out of A Clockwork Orange) and a cute reporter from the west who covers the scene in skate magazines like “Monster” and the American publication “Thrasher.” Years of fun and play, all but verboten in East Germany, continues until the Berlin Wall comes down and everyone grows up and apart — separation in time of reunification.
There are a lot of themes like that, which now seem to me could only have been contrived. While a lot of it is surely true to the skate culture of the time and place, much more is aimed at ideas pertaining to the identity of GDR, particularly in its final years and endpoint. Persiel has constructed a myth based in the fond memories of rebellion, which couldn’t have happened without an oppressive state to defy. It’s like when old punks talk about how music was better when Reagan and Thatcher gave the kids something to get angry about. One amusing part of Panik’s story underlines the national air in near-satirical brilliance. When we meet him as a youth he’s being rigidly trained as a swimmer destined for Olympic greatness. He quits to focus on skating, only to later be recruited for a program to train youths to be the greatest in a strict, competitive take on his sport of choice.
Were it not labeled a documentary, whether structured like one or not, This Ain’t California would presumably be as popular as other recent films looking back to the era, such as Goodbye Lenin! and The Lives of Others. Yet it carries a two-sided stigma, as the purist documentary crowd doesn’t usually embrace works that seem to be tricking them or where they can’t properly consider how to care about what they’re looking at. It’s as if fiction films aren’t allowed to be informative and nonfiction films can’t communicate a feeling.
There is, definitely, certainly, a part of me who feels like an idiot for not seeing the manufactured aspects of the film. I’d even taken down note of how there are multiple camera angles at times, which is un-doc-like. But we’ve seen that done in other docs before. There’s even a clue in a favorite line I wrote down — “give a kid something that rolls, put him into a world of concrete, and he’ll come up with the same idea” — basically that Panik is a fictional character who could have and probably sort of did exist under another name and so it doesn’t matter if this particular tale isn’t all true.
As much as I want that not to matter to me (I’m the one who still argues that regardless of some fakery, I’m Not Here is still a documentary), it was frankly disappointing to hear that a story I found so unbelievable it had to be true was actually so unbelievable it had to be made up, and was. While This Ain’t California is a complicated case on the extra-textual level, however, it can’t be denied how entertaining it is and what remarkable craft there is in its creation, especially in the editing. I could probably write and discuss the film until my fingers fall off or my mouth runs dry, but I’d rather just watch it again and again until my eyes and ears give out. Hopefully more people get to also see and enjoy it for what it is soon.
The Upside: A masterpiece of editing and re-creation resulting in one of the most enthralling stories of the year
The Downside: On the screen there is none; off the screen the down side is unfortunately in its inaccessibility to those more informed about it
On the Side: The soundtrack, which is available from Amazon in Germany features a range of great 70s and 80s artists, including Frank Schöbel, Alphaville and Anne Clark.