Text by Simon Vita
A skate flick with a difference will hit the screens as part of this year’s New Zealand International Film festival. This Ain’t California is a documentary focusing on a group of East German skaters from the mid 70s through to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The film opens with a group of friends reunited after 20-odd years at a wake for their old skate buddy Dennis. They reminisce about their days hanging out as rollbrettfahrer (skateboarders) in the Alexanderplatz in pre-unification Berlin. Director Marten Persiel uses a mix of back in the day super-8 footage, animated re-enactments and recently shot interviews to tell his tale of camaraderie and rebellion against the backdrop of a skate culture that was so out of place that it was viewed in some quarters as a threat to society.
Skate history movies aren’t new. Since the release of Dogtown and Z-boys in 2001 we’ve seen nostalgic skate flicks from the UK, and from New Zealand with Andrew Moore’s No More Heroes. What sets This Ain’t California apart from other back in the day scene reports is its overriding message of liberation in the face of overriding oppression. We’re not talking ‘my parents want me to clean up my room’ oppression, rather a totalitarian regime that did a damn fine job of stamping out freedom of expression.
Case in point was Dennis who was shoulder tapped at age eight as a future Olympic swimmer and as such made to train upwards of 30 hours a week. Skating for him was a release from the regimented training and a predetermined life as a sporting poster boy for his country. And release himself he did, Dennis, AKA Panic, was the charismatic daredevil who skated and partied harder than any of the rest.
Watching This Ain’t California you see how skaters stood out in the otherwise grey East Germany. As well as a glimpse into the lives of the skaters, the film is also a rare chance to see the goings on in the former Eastern-bloc state. Older skaters here may remember how hard it was to import gear into New Zealand in the early 80s. At least we didn’t face being arrested coming through customs with ratty hand-me-down equipment.
The Alexanderplatz gang hooked other outsiders from with the local hip hop and punk scenes and eventually got coverage in the West. The East Germans gained exposure on a trip to the legendary Munster World Cup in 1988, it also gave them a taste for the outside world and a sense they were part of global skate culture. Indeed it was kids like the Alexanderplatz skaters, the hip hoppers and the punks who saw the West and thought it was good that helped ultimately to bring down the Berlin Wall and open up East Germany ahead of unification.
It was the quest for freedom, and for these Alexanderplatz kids, freedom rode a skateboard.