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

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 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

best documentary.

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.)

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