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Treading the boards has been painful experience for Persiel

IN movies it is usually only stunt personnel who can count on several scarred hands the number of broken bones they have suffered.

But director Marten Persiel, helmer of This Ain't California, a film about the skateboarding culture in the old East Germany, has earned himself membership of the fracture fraternity.

"I have been skating for 30 years, I have broken basically everything," says the 38-year-old filmmaker from Berlin. "I don't want to spend so much time in hospital any more so that is why I stopped."

This Ain't California, described as a "documentary tale" for the way it blends facts and fiction, looks at how skateboarding in East Germany offered youngsters a taste of freedom and a chance to challenge the authorities.

Persiel returned to Germany four years ago having lived in the UK, Brazil, Spain, the Philippines and other places. He was in the Alexanderplatz square one day when it struck him that socialist architecture, with its vast swathes of concrete, must have been great for skateboarding.

Shortly after, he was given access to a suitcase full of Super 8 film featuring East German boarders. Realising he had enough here for more than just a short or a television movie, he began to put together a 100-minute feature.

As a born and bred "Wessi", his first instinct had been to play the story for laughs, starting with putting the unfashionable "Ossi" into stonewashed jeans. Research quickly showed him the story was more complex than that.

"It's a very telling European tale," says Persiel. Skateboarding in the East was more than a way to pass the time: the authorities saw it as a subversive, pro-American act and, as the opening of Stasi files has since shown, worthy of police attention.

This Ain't California tells the story of a group of friends who met on the scene and grew up together. Persiel uses techniques common to other documentaries, such as talking head interviews, but he also deploys animation, recreates scenes and moulds the stories of several characters into one. When the film first began doing the rounds of film festivals in Germany, the audience took everything at face value. It is only now, as the film is about to open in the UK, that Persiel has begun to explain the merger of fact and fiction. "We recreated a lot … but we didn't invent anything," is how he sums it up.

Growing up in the West, Persiel knew little of what life had been like in the East, save for the time when he was 12 and his family visited relatives there. Seeing the anti-tank ditches and the dogs, it struck him that this was not just any old border between two countries. He remembers, too, the smell from the oil used in the old Trabants.

He was a teenager when the Wall fell in 1989. It is only recently that he has come to appreciate what a culture shock it must have been for the Ossi. These were people who had been taught to be anti-materialistic, anti-American, he says, and suddenly they had to find their way in the Europe of the 1990s.

"A lot of the interviews I did were with people who did not fare well in life, who did not really make it. There are some pretty dark biographies. The 1990s were a difficult time in Germany for someone from the East."

While there were huge differences in living standards between skateboarders in the East and West, they shared a sense of community common to the sport, says Persiel. Skateboarding is a do-it-yourself activity, he explains. "You don't look for organisations, a trainer or a parent, you just do it."

As such, there is less of a class element to it. "It is really one of the few sports where you have everybody from the doctor's son to the homeless drug dealer kid." When he was at film school in London, for example, he skated in a south London park where all ages and classes mixed.

He says: "It was a tough crowd sometimes. No matter the age, no matter the background it is all about doing it yourself and doing it. That's what makes the scene so close-knit … that is what is cool about it."

This sense of community helped when it came to funding This Ain't California. He received donations from all over, including America, Canada, and Indonesia. Donors' names feature in a long thank-you list at the end of the film. The effort of making the film has paid off, not just in turning This Ain't California from idea to reality, but in helping Persiel begin to raise the cash for his next picture, a science fiction movie. One backer, for example, told him they though his idea was weird but, on the basis of This Ain't California, they liked his style and gave him the money.

To younger skateboarders who come to see the film, East Germany must seem like ancient history, I suggest. "If they are young, they do not know what the film is talking about. They have no idea," he agrees. But he thinks that besides teaching them about a certain part of Europe's history, they learn a more universal lesson besides. "They realise that being young is a pretty timeless experience."

This Ain't California is in selected UK cinemas and on video on demand from tomorrow, and on DVD on February 3

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