If there is such a thing as “GDR Nostalgia”, then This Ain’t California will make you feel it. Even if you’re not a socialist, even if you were born after the Berlin Wall came down, even if you’re not even German — this documentary will make you yearn for the good ol’ days of pre-unification Germany.
For those of you who need a slight history refresher, here’s a recap. After World War II, Germany was split into two; Allies-controlled West Germany, and Soviet-controlled East Germany, aka the GDR. The west was marching freely towards a bright future, open to capitalism, and opportunities were plentiful. The east though seemed stuck in a more constricting socialism, living in a land that put high importance on citizens who served their country through sports achievements, not to mention the presence of a paranoia-inducing secret service, the Stasi. These were tense times for both sides, but that reality of a country and people divided by a wall is told from a unique perspective in this engrossing documentary.
The film begins with the story of three boys — Nico, Dirk and Dennis — growing up in 1970s GDR, living in a faceless cement block of apartments, but having the blissful ignorance of youth and the entertainment of their homemade skateboards. Come the ’80s and Nico has moved to East Berlin with his mother, and fallen in with the local skateboarding kids who hang out at super-hip Alexanderplatz. It’s not long before Nico invites Dennis for a visit to the big city, and it ends up being the escape Dennis needs. The two form a deeper bond that revolves around the freedom of being young, exploring who you are, and skateboarding.
From the opening sequence, director Marten Persiel bombards us with a frenzy of home videos intercut with old GDR stock footage set to equally frenetic tunes. The doco is set out across seven chapters, each representing a certain time in these kids’ lives. Using a mix of current-day reminiscing, Nico’s abundance of personal home videos and photography, plus a few Skateboarding 101 clips and some hand-drawn-style animation thrown in for good measure, this is one film that is not lacking in style. This constant mixture of material makes sure that (visually) we’re never bored, and the photography is a treat — old-school super-8 films included. Add to this an awesome soundtrack, and the production side of the film is a big thumbs up for Persiel. Also worth a mention is the narration and occasional thoughts from the group of people involved. Through talking about their youth, their experiences, and each other, a beautiful kind of poetry forms to complement the awesome imagery.
Which brings us to the story. Told through the eyes of relative straight-man Nico, it’s (mostly) his narration we hear, and it’s his life we follow — but it’s Dennis who emerges as the real star of the piece. Dennis has all the makings of a perfect troubled protagonist; difficult childhood resulting in a slightly disturbed young man, good looks in a wild, devil-may-care way, a kind of rockstar charisma, and a dual-personality of ADHD antics that show off, explore and subvert, clashing against a private, personal side capable of love and quiet curiosity. This is someone whose story is just begging to be made into a feature film. I know, I know, God forbid we taint the original with a slick Hollywood adaptation. But there is a certain spirit of the times, growing rebellion, and a cracking mixture of characters that just feels like a fantastic adaptation waiting to happen.
This Ain’t California is a love letter to both skateboarding and to a long-lost friend, and it’s the friendship that gives the film its beating heart, just as it’s Dennis that gives the film its captivating soul. Highly recommended, regardless of if you’re into skateboarding or not, this ain’t California — this is Berlin. And it’s rad.
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