Few films manage to tread the line between intimately telling a personal story, and giving wider context to events. This Ain’t California is one of those rare gems, that is simultaneously anecdotal and educational.
The story of Denis, or Panik, the emblematic skateboarder of a controlling East Germany, is incredibly compelling. It’s easy to forget the transformation of Germany within our generations lifetime. The German Democratic Republic only ceased to exist in 1990.
While on the surface this film follows Denis, throughout his childhood, into adulthood, and his discovery of skateboarding, it’s actually about a lot more than that. It examines the social impact of growing up in East Germany, the controlling influence of the country, and the freedom that accompanied the discovery of a typically Western leisure activity. Skateboarding becomes the thread that allows exploration of the wider story. Even to someone with no interest in skateboarding, this is a fascinating tale.
…Interviews are impressively fluid…
The story is beautifully woven through use of the first person archive, supplemented by use of periodical archive, and visual animations, that together paint a picture of everything that went on. A compelling feature of this documentary is the use of first person narrative, and anecdotal story telling from people that knew Denis throughout his life. Interviews are impressively fluid, with close relationships between interviewees creating a comfortable environment for storytelling. The film manages to move smoothly between storytellers, and yet retain its consistency. Despite its genteel pace, the issues covered are vast and bleak social problems of the time. Denis’ gallivanting story takes centre stage, but sits within a frame of oppression. The more his story is explained, the more his rebellion becomes increasingly understandable.
It’s a decidedly attractive film. The grainy instagram style archive footage is supplemented by anthemic rock and punk songs. The black and white illustrations illustrate poignant moments, and the whole combination makes the film a joy to watch.
…The archive footage is infact not archive…
It’s a fascinating story, both on the surface and deeper levels. As the tale builds to it’s intriguing conclusion, there’s a sense of really knowing something about Denis as a character. An example of documentary storytelling at its best. The film holds the viewers attention until it’s last moments, and would have been a deeply satisfying watch, were it not for one fatal flaw. The archive footage is infact not archive, but purposefully shot new footage. The characters are potentially not real. The interviewees are actors. The whole film is something of a lie, with the neatly woven story the result of careful plotting rather than anything more authentic.
An interesting watch, but the lack of transparency about its creation makes it feel like a betrayal.