Writer(s): Marten Persiel, Ira Wedel
Running time: 90mins
The lowdown: When does one of 2013’s best documentaries become merely an interesting curio? When it transpires a large chunk of it is made up and the remainder highly suspect. Director Marten Persiel dubs his film about rebellious skateboarders in 1980s East Germany a “documentary tale” or “hybrid documentary”. Others may not be as kind and will wonder why he didn’t just roll down the full fiction route.
The full verdict: Beginning life as a mockumentary about an East German teenager who accidentally “invents” skateboarding behind the Iron Curtain, This Ain’t California evolved into the quasi-documentary we have now.
But while reaching for a poetic kind of universal truth, the decision to stage half of it and invent characters wholesale throws everything into doubt, rendering apparently three years of research redundant.
Persiel’s film uses the funeral wake of Denis “Panik” Paracek; an anti-authoritarian skateboarding superstar who joined the army after the Wall came down and was killed in Afghanistan, to look inside the 1980s ‘boarding movement that foretold the inexorable desire for freedom.
But, actors largely portray his surviving friends and there’s scant evidence that Denis ever existed. Actual archive footage (not the 50% Persiel admits to shooting) contains no shots of him, Paracek instead being portrayed in part by German model and professional boarder Kai Hillebrand.
Persiel fessed up after the doc had been a while on the festival circuit and picked up several awards. But, doubts linger as to whether any of this is true (including a former Stasi agent recounting how skateboarding was considered a national security threat).
All this suspicion overshadows This Ain’t California’s achievements.
Technically, the joins between staged footage and archive material cannot be spotted, and the film uses various techniques, including animation, to create a dynamic paean to the human spirit that hits all the right beats.
And you hope the revelation that the GDR’s brutally angular, cold architecture fuelled skateboarders’ imaginations is true.
Subsequent viewings may diminish the sense of disappointment at so much factual ambiguity. But you are left wondering why Persiel didn’t make his methods more transparent and save himself a lot of bother.