‘This Ain’t California’: The Undeclared Mockumentary
Every once and a while a film comes around that does the truth a real disservice. This is one of them.
‘This Ain’t California’, which showed at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, is a movie about skateboarders in East Germany who stood up to the Communist regime, which considered their sport too individualistic. This is a great premise for a film, but because the film does not distinguish between historical footage and scenes which were recently filmed, it is impossible to think of it as anything but a pseudo-documentary.
More egregious is that the film deliberately misleads the viewer: never once are you told that (probably most of the) footage is re-enacted, or that the characters in the leading roles are actually actors. Worse still: it is well done. Most people I have met who have seen this film accept the antiqued footage is genuine, that it is historically accurate. All this deeply worries the historian in me.
German history is no ordinary history. This might sound high-minded, but we shouldn’t forget Germany unleashed Hitler and was later partly dominated by Stalin. You do not need conflate the crimes of the Nazi regime with those of the Soviet satellite states (under the aegis of ‘totalitarianism’, a conflation I’m adverse to) to think it’s important to be watchful and agitate for an accurate historical, documentary, record of the GDR regime.
This Ain’t California lets down the concerted efforts by historians, policy makers, educators and the public, who attempt to transmit a well-documented record of the past to those who come after us. They have instead added to the record a sexy commercial product that isn’t simply bad history, but something that might not be history at all.
Let’s put the record straight. As historian Eric Hobsbawn (who regrettably died today) says, it’s historians’ ‘business to remember what others forget’. Even more essential is to correct what others simply make up:
In an interview, the filmmaker Martin Persiel (who incidentally grew up in West Germany, not the GDR), talks about why he uses animation and ‘theatrical parts’ in his film, they give you
…the opportunity to exaggerate things, to make them plain and iconic. I think in documentary that is something that comes in very handy, because sometimes you just don’t have a good image for what you want to say, especially if you are talking about the past. Also, it’s funny how images that are obviously not ‘real’ can help to underline the emotional credibility of a real story.
On one level Persiel is saying that animation and theatrical and fictionalised additions are useful to his film. But the animated additions appear to be inserted at those moments when historical footage is missing, making the new Super 8 footage appear all the more authentic. Also here, the director is admitting a lackadaisical attitude to the documentary (as opposed to ‘emotional’) credibility of the story. I don’t like that he puts the word real in scare quotes. There’s something disturbing about the idea that what’s real in the past is up to movie makers to craft without real documentary sources.
Watching the film, and knowing people here in the film industry, I was surprised to see actors I actually recognised! And to be surprised that they have time-traveled back to the eighties! I’ve even come across a skateboarder in the city, cast to pretend he was in the GDR regime, who asserts simply ‘it’s a fiction film’.
Never declared (and omitted from the credits) is that the model Kai Hillebrand plays the main character, an anti-authoritarian wild boy. According to the film, the character he is in the film (let alone ‘plays’: you are never told he’s anything but the original) was born in 1970, and not 1990. Does he look like a 42-year old to you?
We can immediately write off as anachronistic all the scenes in the film in which he appears: and those account for a significant percentage of the film… the scenes in the Prague hotel where skateboarders fight with fire extinguishers, the outlandish party scenes in the flat on Karl Marx Allee with the naked women and boozing, most of the boarding scenes, and the climactic confrontation with the Stasi. The director (who refuses to answer directly whether then film is fiction) has skirted questions about the actual existence of the historical figure Hillebrand plays, Denis ‘Panik’ Panicek, who was supposedly is killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011. Except as far as I can find, no one by that name was ever killed in action in Afghanistan. No matter, the film is dedicated to his memory.
There are plenty of other slights of hand in this film: so-called documentary footage that conveniently can focus on the skateboarders’ wheels, and not on the contemporary buildings, an interview with a Stasi agent that is acted so badly it’s almost certainly a theatrical job. I’m also very suspicious of the GDR news footage railing against the Imperialist threat of skateboarding (it struck me as an hommage to the fake news clips crafted by the boys for the mother in Goodbye Lenin). With so much amiss, it’s hard to believe there’s any emotional or documentary credibility left to what skateboard scene may or may not have actually existed in the GDR. This does a disservice to any actual skateboarders who may have stood up against the Party. Isn’t their story interesting enough to deserve a real documentary?
The film meanwhile provides convenient explanations for its deceits. You might be wondering: where did they get all that Super 8 film in the East? Explanation in film: my Daddy had connections and got it for me. Explanation necessary only if you wish to mislead, since much of the footage is not original. And how did they get Western skateboards? The son of a diplomat with CD plates snuck them in for us. He offers an interview in the film, and again we wonder if he’s an actor.
The producer of the film, Ronald Vietz, says ‘It’s not important whether it’s true or not’.
I beg to differ. It matters. If the film is entered as a ‘documentary’ for the Berlinale and other film festivals it should not be fiction. It matters if it wins prizes in that category, like in Cannes at the Independent Film Festival. It matters for German history. And it matters if your audience thinks it’s real.
It matters because the film is a lot less interesting to the audience if it’s fiction. One senses something commercially minded here: the film will sell better if people think it’s a documentary, especially an audience eager for Communism seen through the rose-tinted glasses of Ostalgie.
The subject matter distinguishes it from the brilliant Banksy hoax ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, because that film, full of flirtatious self-awareness as a misleading artwork, explores an artist playing off his own story, not a bunch of German filmmakers playing haphazard with a collective past of serious importance.
As far as I’m concerned ‘This Ain’t California’ sure ain’t East Germany either.