The home movies show a bunch of young kids doing skateboard stunts all around their neighborhood. Without the sound, the action could be taking place almost anywhere. The kids have clothes and haircuts that look like the late 1970s, the town they live in has a prefab drabness. But their goofiness and exuberance is universal.
Look a little closer and you'll see that their skateboards are homemade. And none of their clothes are branded. The cars on the street are quite small. There are no billboards. After a while you realize: this ain't California.
In fact, this is This Ain't California, a documentary about the skateboarding scene in East Germany in the 1980s. The heart of this remarkable piece of cinema is a set of "home movies" that capture the lives and hijinks of three friends who grow up in Olvenstedt, near Magdeburg. One of them has the great fortune to have a father with access to movie camera and, even more importantly, a steady supply of film. Incredibly, the father allows his son to document his friends' growing commitment to skateboarding.
These kids recreate in miniature the skateboarding culture of the West: interacting dynamically with the landscape, taking unusual risks, and beginning to develop a certain skepticism about authority figures. The focus of the home movies and the documentary itself narrows in on Denis Paraceck, an almost mythic figure around whom various stories accumulate. Trained to be an Olympic swimmer, he abandons the quest right in the middle of a race by simply swimming to the side of the pool. When his friend moves to East Berlin and reports that the skateboard scene there is way more interesting, Denis shows up at his apartment and stays for the next three years. At a skateboard competition in Prague in 1988, now using his assumed moniker Panic, Denis is the only one on the GDR team not overawed by the skateboard legends from the West and performs accordingly.
Panic is a Dionysian figure who refuses to be contained by the GDR strictures. But he is not the only one. A new culture of risk-taking is beginning to develop among young people in the GDR in the 1980s. "The streets were not for playing on," one of the members of this crowd remarks in the film. But several years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, skateboarders and breakdancers and all-around mischief-makers began to take it to the streets in anticipation of the protestors who would later fill the public squares of Leipzg, Dresden, and East Berlin.
The GDR authorities tried to absorb and contain this new youth movement. They created an official breakdance group that toured the country. They invited the top skateboarders to a training facility where they hoped to turn them into a competitive force to rival the medal-winning teams that the GDR was fielding in the Olympics.
But when East and West German skateboarders gathered together in the East in a collective challenge to the GDR authorities, the Stasi were there to document the occasion. "It was almost eerie that nothing had happened" to us," one of the skateboarders remarks. But at this all-Germany championship, the Stasi stepped in to quash the festivities. Not much later, they put Denis in jail, and that's where he is when the Berlin Wall falls. Reunification disperses the East German skateboarders, and Denis/Panic is set adrift. Finally, much later, he joins the German army and goes to fight in Afghanistan.
We find out what happens to Denis. But even though the documentary shows a reunion of his friends and fellow skateboarders, we don't really learn what happened to any of them. Did they stay in eastern Germany? Did their experience of skateboarding under Communism influence the trajectory of their lives?
The director's reticence to pursue these questions might have something to do with the fact that much of this documentary -- the reunion, the "home movies," even Denis/Panic himself -- has been manufactured. Unlike the archival footage that enhanced the 2001 documentary Dogtownand Z-Boys about the skateboarding scene in California in the 1970s, the "home movies" of This Ain't California were created by modern-day skateboarders done up to look like their 1980s counterparts.
So, how much of the film is true and how much is not? There certainly was a skateboarding scene in the GDR in the 1980s. It existed alongside a punk culture big enough that punk rockers had to seek refuge from harassment in the Protestant Church where, writes Frederick Taylor, they were even incorporated into "modernized" church services. On the other side of the political spectrum, skinheads were mobilizing into such groups as the Lichtenburg Front in order to beat up on the punks. In 1987, according to Patricia Smith, "the State Security Service had to deal with some 38 functioning rightwing extremist groups."
In its eagerness to recreate an "emotional truth" as opposed to the literal truth, the filmmakers fail to probe the connections between these various strands of the youth movement in the GDR. But This Ain't California isn't so much a documentary as an attempt to get at what living in the GDR felt like, particularly for young people. Unfortunately, that means that, for all its exuberance, the film has the same staged quality as The Lives of Others, Good Bye Lenin!, and other attempts to recreate the GDR experience.
Skateboarding was all about "reinterpreting the gray boredom around us," one of the narrators concludes. But This Ain't California reveals that the GDR wasn't all gray boredom. A vibrant youth culture that mixed music, drugs, sex, and skateboarding created a subculture that was anarchic, multicolored, and ultimately dangerous to the prevailing order.
You can see This Ain't California beginning this Friday at the Maysles Institute at 343 Malcolm X Boulevard / Lenox Avenue (between 127th and 128th Streets) in New York. It will run from April 12 to 18.