Meet the Filmmaker: Marten Persiel (“This Ain’t California”)

A hit at the 2012 Berlinale, This Ain’t California takes a look at the transformation of Germany over the course of 40 years through the lens of three skateboarder friends. The director Marten Persiel sits down with Rooftop Films to chat about the film, Germany-then and now, skateboarding, and more.

Rooftop Films is proud to host the New York premiere on a working rooftop skatepark at the Open Road Rooftop in the Lower East Side. Join us and Marten as we will be taking your questions at the Q and A on Friday evening.

Rooftop Films: You have been described as a bit of a nomad, as reflected by your past documentary subjects. How did you come to turn your camera back to Germany?

Marten Persiel: Yes, I left Germany in 1996. When I came back to live in Berlin four years ago, I guess I had a slightly shifted viewpoint on my country, it almost seemed a bit exotic at times. And Germany has changed a hell of a lot in the past 20 years. This Ain’t California is a film set in the eighties, the cold war, the time when the country was divided by a deadly frontier. That reality was a completely normal part of my childhood, even though it seems so very bizarre and, well, ‘exotic’ if you look at it from todays perspective. So, coming back to the Germany of today and making a film that deals with the Germany I remember made sense on a personal level, like catching up. Berlin is a city that oozes history, everywhere there are shadows of a past of people violently setting up and tearing down ideologies. That is the Berlin everyone knows from the past century, but it’s not the reality now. This Ain’t California revolves around a bunch of skateboarders who live their lives basically under the radar of politics. The skaters of the east were, by being hedonists and freedom-lovers, maybe the predecessors of what the City later became.

RF: What shows most about the skaters in the film is that they share a lifelong passion with the sport, as well as the community. Can you describe your own experiences with skateboarding? Were the scenes such as the one at Alexanderplatz something you were aware of growing up?

MP: I started skating 29 years ago as a little kid in western Germany and never really stopped. I am super grateful for the friends I made in all those years and for the stuff I experienced skateboarding. It’s been a life vest and a guide through life. I know that might sound a bit pathetic, but it’s how I feel about it, and it is where this film is coming from. In the film there is a sense that stupidly goofing around on the streets can shape whole biographies. It’s how you look at your city, the buildings around you, the streets. Its how much you allow yourself to say ‘this is my world too, I want to play here’. To think like that could basically get you arrested in a totalitarian and militarized system like the GDR. … oh wait.. it can get you arrested in NY too! Hm.

RF: The personalities in This Ain’t California are extraordinary characters made legends by enjoying their favorite hobby in a society that couldn’t find a place for them. To hear them describe the difficulties of making and finding equipment, AND having rare access to film materials seems like a beautiful, happy accident considering the conditions in East Germany. At the same time, they’re just like anybody that anyone grew up with. How did you come upon them, and their treasure trove of home video footage?

MP: We started researching and contacting the first one or two guys and it really went like a wildfire after that. If you ever met a skater above 35, you’ll find they will LOVE to tell you about their skate antics. And show you every photo, every old homemade board from the old east that they have lying around. Almost as if it suddenly made sense to even have kept a broken piece of plywood for 22 years.. and most of them had kept theirs. So, of course it was work to find everybody and get them on board, but it was fun and emotional too. It’s true that a lot of people from the ex-east are a bit weary to give away personal material, photos, home-footage, because they are used to being poked fun at in the media for the way they dressed (anyone remember stonewash jeans?) and behaved so out-worldly. But once again, skateboarding was a common ground, and it seems like they are happy with what I did with the material, so I am also happy. Everyone happy.

RF: Most of your film’s present day interviews comes from the touching reunion of the film’s subjects. The resulting conversations are both touching and candid, and really give a sense of the camaraderie they shared, a well as a nostalgia for that time,. Was interviewing them all together a planned part of the process?

MP: We helped to make the reunion happen, but it wasn’t a plan from the get go.

RF: Desire for personal freedom is a major theme in your film such as the youthful freedom of discovering pavement, wheels and gravity. But the film also addresses the much more political issue of the right to expression within public space, an issue which has come back to the fore all around the world. Both facets are well represented in the film. Was this balance, between personal and political freedom, a part of your process in putting the film together?

MP: Absolutely. Its what I tried to say earlier, the GDR was a politicized society in a way that is really hard to imagine today. Kids would know political pamphlets by heart, they would do a salute to the flag and to the principals of socialism every day in school, they would march with the ‘pioneers’ from an incredibly early age, they would get weapons training and a very clear education on who the class-enemy is. Personal freedom from that brainwash meant a mental leap that no-one could guide you with, only your own instinct as a human being. Remember when W.Bush said ‘you are either with us or with the terrorists’? Political leaders who lose touch and make their black-and-white bullshit into everyone’s problem… Maybe I am on slippery ground here, but that’s kind of how it worked. Those kids were not against the socialist society. They couldn’t care less! But that didn’t mean they automatically wanted the capitalist class enemy to take over either, as they had been warned in school. They just didn’t think it was important to them anymore. That is the spirit that made the wall fall in 1989. People just wanting to live normal lives again. That step away from the logic of the cold war was a victory for the human spirit, its something everyone can understand, and I tried to put that in the film.

RF: The film’s comic book style animation makes a great compliment to the youthful, underground feel of the film, almost like a skateboarding fairy tale. Have you worked with animation in your films before, and how did including it come about for this project?

MP: I have, in most of my films and I am a sucker for it. Animation, or Theatrical parts in a documentary film 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, its funny how images that are obviously not ‘real’ can help to underline the emotional credibility of a real story.

RF: This Ain’t California will be showing at one of our favorite venues, the Open Road Rooftop on the Lower East Side. Are you excited to see your film on a rooftop skatepark?

MP: Well, we are coming to your town with four people: Ronald Vietz – Producer, Felix Leiberg – DoP, Maxine Goedicke – Editor and myself. It’s not the first festival in the states, but it’s the first time we are going to any overseas screening with such a big group. Guess why? Man, we are thrilled to show the film with you guys in NY! Here in the motherland of skateboarding, where there are skateparks on the rooftops of buildings! Seriously, thanks for having us and whoever liked the film, or even if you didn’t, get in touch and hang out with us, we’re here for a week! Thanks again, Best, Marten Persiel