This Ain’t California is a unique movie that straddles the line between documentary and narrative filmmaking. The project depicts the skateboard subculture in East Germany in the 1980s, which is presented as a manifestation of a yearning for freedom. In the film, skaters from the era — now approaching middle age — look back on that time wistfully. They saw skateboarding as a rebellious act, and a way of doing something completely nonproductive, just for fun, in a politicized society where such actions were not only frowned upon but actively repressed, and in extreme cases, could land you in prison.
One skater in particular is recalled by all as a catalyst for the scene. Identified at a young age as a gifted athlete, he is put into the East German training pipeline by a driven, competitive father, and by age 13 he is training 35 hours a week as a swimmer. Eventually he rebels, drops out, takes the street name Panik, and becomes a superlative skater who is constantly provoking confrontations with authority.
The kids are put under surveillance by the Stasi, and the government, after first decrying the sport as decadent and Western. The skaters from the East make contact with their opposite numbers on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and travel to Prague for a major competition that includes legendary skaters from the West. Their journey home is bittersweet, as they realize the full extent of the repression they’ve been living under. At the same time, East Berlin is home.
The story is told with a combination of actual home movies — the kids loved their Super 8 cameras almost as much as their homemade skateboards — archival footage, and new footage designed to mimic the older images shot by the kids.
The Super 8mm imagery is often blurry, with colors that bloom and smear. The result is an impressionistic fi lm that conjures a feeling of memory, an idyllic past that is simultaneously tinged with regret and lost innocence.
This Ain’t California won the top documentary prize at the 2012 Warsaw Film Festival, and at the Berlin International Film Festival the film was honored with the Dialog en perspective prize, which honors films that foster international dialog. The jury cited the film’s “visual strength and the stylistic confidence of its editing. With gripping dynamics, it mixes personal history with the collective memory of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). We’ve rarely been so splendidly manipulated.”
Cinematographer Felix Leiburg and director Marten Persiel initially looked at some digital formats, but the feeling wasn’t right. They both made Super 8 films as kids, which included at least 20 interviews with former skaters that they used for background and as the basis for a script.
“We could have made a normal documentary from these interviews, but Marten had a vision for a different kind of film,” says Leiburg. “He created Panik out of three or four actual people based on what he learned in these interviews.”
For the new footage, the filmmakers used skaters and friends who were carefully dressed and made up in styles from the 1980s. They found locations in East Berlin that echoed the hulking concrete forms of GDR architecture.
The main cameras were two BEAULIEU 6008 Super 8 cameras. The BEAULIEU cameras could take Super 16 lenses, but most of the time Leiburg stayed with the fi sheye 5.6mm lens that comes standard. Two BRAUN NIZO 501s served as crash cams that could be mounted directly on the decks of the skateboards. The NIZO cameras were capable of overcranking and ramping at 54 frames per second. Most of the skating footage was done with only natural light.
“It was a fun shoot,” Leiburg recalls. “It was more of a team feeling. I became a character in the script, the kid who always had the camera. It was an interesting experience, because normally I’m telling people what to do, but here I was one of them, reacting with what they did. To get convincing footage that felt like home movies, I had to forget all my experience and studies and become an amateur again.”
Leiburg shot 300 rolls of Super 8mm film. About half was KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 7219, and the rest was on KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 7213. Leiburg chose negative because it gave him more control over contrast. Often he was imitating the look of ORWO stocks available in that time and place, which delivered more pastel colors and less crispness than today’s film stocks.
For scenes like the competition in Prague, Leiburg shot Super 16, often at high frame rates. A shot re-creating the fall of the Berlin Wall used a vintage cathode ray video camera borrowed from a museum. For some scenes, including a campfire scene where the older skaters reunite and recall the glory days, CANON 5Ds were used. Typically, the skaters’ words are scripted reminiscences.
All the Super 8 footage was transferred to HD ProRes 4:4:4 format at Screenshot in Berlin, chosen after tests at three different labs. “We didn’t need to do a lot of grading,” says Leiburg. “That was the idea. We tested HD cameras, but we found the only way to make it really look believable and true was to actually shoot it on Super 8. Also, that was the only way to get all the ramping and other crazy stuff we did, like stopping the camera and shooting again, shooting with — and then without — correction. We would open the door and close it while filming. We tried to make as many mistakes as we could. Most of the time, I underexposed two or even three stops. Sometimes, I found out that I could underexpose five or six stops, and even then it looked great. I really loved that experience, and the chance to do everything wrong. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Leiburg adds that sometimes the method that delivers maximum resolution is not what is right for a given story. “Super 8 doesn’t show a lot of detail, so it’s very forgiving. What you see with your eyes and the footage are completely different worlds. When the first footage came back, we drank a few beers and watched it. We were so relieved that our strategy worked out.”
This Ain’t California has garnered positive notice at dozens of film festivals around the world, including the Plus Camerimage International Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Poland, and the Cannes Independent Film Festival, where it was named best documentary.