This Ain’t California is a unique movie that straddles the
line between documentary and narrative fi lmmaking. 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 fi lm, 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. Identifi ed 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 fi rst 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
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 kids loved their Super 8
cameras almost as much as
their homemade skateboards.
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 fi lm was honored with the Dialog en perspective
prize, which honors fi lms that foster international dialog.
The jury cited the fi lm’s “visual strength and the stylistic
confi dence 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
Cinematographer Felix Leiburg and director Marten Persiel
initially looked at some digital formats, but the feeling wasn’t
right. They both made Super 8 fi lms 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 fi lm,”
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 fi lmmakers 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 fi lm. 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 fi lm 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 campfi re
scene where the older skaters
reunite and recall the glory
days, CANON 5Ds were used.
Typically, the skaters’ words are
a mix of actual recollections and
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 fi lming. 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 fi ve 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 fi rst 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
fi lm 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
Photos – Left page: Skateboarding in
the ‘80s (©Harald Schmitt). This page
bottom left: Skateboarding was seen
as a rebellious act in East Gemany.
(©Wildfremd Production GmbHD.)
Middle: Felix Leiburg and Marten Persiel
on the set (© Wildfremd Production
GmbHD). Right: Scene from This Ain’t
(© Harald Schmitt.)