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How Minding the Gap went from skateboard documentary to a raw look at domestic abuse

Director Bing Liu talks about taking inspiration from skate videos, being his own subject, and making one of the year’s best films.

Keire and his skateboard.
Keire Johnson, one of the subjects of Minding the Gap, out now on Hulu.
Hulu
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

One of the most extraordinary films of the year is Minding the Gap, which opens in limited theaters and on Hulu on August 17. It starts out as an engrossing documentary about a group of young people in Rockford, Illinois, who skateboard together and grow up together. But as the film unfolds, it expands from being a skate movie to something much bigger.

Minding the Gap is particularly concerned with domestic violence — Rockford has some of the highest rates of domestic abuse in the state and the country — and how generational patterns of abuse repeat themselves. Two of the film’s subjects, Zack and Nina, are in a tumultuous relationship, and they eventually have a child together. Another, Keire, speaks vulnerably about his struggles to find work and cope with his relationship with his “disciplinarian” father.

One of the main subjects is Bing Liu, who is also the film’s director and often speaks from behind the camera. Liu has worked as a camera operator and cinematographer on a number of projects, including Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience and executive producer Steve James’s upcoming docuseries America to Me, but Minding the Gap is his first feature as director. Since the film’s triumphant Sundance premiere in January, where it won a special jury award for breakthrough filmmaking, the movie has raked in several festival prizes and critical accolades, and Liu has been hailed as one of the most promising young talents in the field.

Liu and I recently spoke by phone about finding inspiration in skate videos, how reality TV has affected documentary filmmaking, the challenge of making a movie in which you’re also a character, and the raw, emotional experience of shooting scenes where he talks to his own mother about his stepfather’s abuse of him and his brother.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

2018 Sarasota Film Festival - Day 2
Liu speaking at the Sarasota Film Festival in April.
Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for Sarasota Film Festival

Alissa Wilkinson

Minding the Gap isn’t actually a skate movie, but it’s clear just in the way the film is shot that you’ve made skate videos before.

Bing Liu

Most people probably didn’t watch skate videos until the internet and YouTube happened, and they’ve watched footage of skaters falling and getting hurt or something, and it goes viral. But skate videos have been a genre for a long time. There were super-high-budget videos made in the ’80s and ’90s. Spike Jonze started out making skate videos, and he did particularly artsy ones.

One video that I saw when I was 15 was called First Love. TransWorld Skateboarding magazine put it out, and it was so artsy. A lot of it was shot on 16mm. They were doing things like having the skaters that were in the video talk about the first time they fell in love with skateboarding. That opened up a door for me to think about what I was doing in a different way.

Alissa Wilkinson

What was it about First Love and other skate videos that appealed to you — the aesthetics, or the subjects, or something else?

Bing Liu

When I was that age, I was just emulating what I was seeing. So I started interviewing skateboarders and getting them to talk about why they love skateboarding or what they think about kids these days — stuff like that. I started learning photography and more cinematic techniques by going online and being a part of communities with other skate videographers, and we’d critique each other’s videos. It was like an ad hoc film school.

Keire and Zack in Minding the Gap
Keire and Zack in Minding the Gap.
Kartemquin Films

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s interesting to watch Minding the Gap in tandem with Crystal Moselle’s new film Skate Kitchen, which is about teenage girls skating on the Lower East Side in New York. They’re different genres, but both are about how young people find and even construct their own families around skateboarding and its community.

Bing Liu

On the male side, I think skating can be actually, paradoxically, a way for young men to not truly connect. A lot of the conversations that happened in Minding the Gap aren’t normal skating conversations. I liken it to New England people sitting in a sports bar watching hockey; they’re talking about hockey, but they’re not really talking to each other. I think that’s what skateboarding does in a way. It’s great at first because it does allow you to stay out of trouble and be able to focus on something. But as you get older, it starts to have diminishing returns.

Alissa Wilkinson

So much of your film is about people who have spent their lives not being able to communicate with their own family. And domestic abuse, obviously, is a big part of this.

Bing Liu

During the first year of production on this film, I talked a lot about abuse with people all over the place. It was a thread that I expected to come up, but I didn’t expect it to come up so much.

When I first met Keire, he talked about his father being abusive. The reason I chose to follow him wasn’t that he was the first one to talk about it. But a lot of other people had either brushed it off, sort of like what Zack does, or had already processed it. There was a softness in him that hadn’t hardened yet.

So the abuse thread was pretty much in the film from the beginning. Of course, there were things that happened in the film that made it a lot less topical and more immediate to their lives. Zack and his relationship just got really abusive.

Alissa Wilkinson

And discovering that abusive relationship is a big moment in the film. As a filmmaker, I would imagine you see that as an important turning point for Minding the Gap when it happens. But at the same time, the subjects are your friends. You’re not excited to discover that abuse is happening in any way. Did you find yourself struggling with your relationship to the subjects as the film went on?

Bing Liu

I felt like Keire and I had this bond that kept growing and growing. At one point, early on, I asked Keire, “Who’s a good guiding person in your life that helps you?” Keire was like, “Well, you’re probably not gonna put this in there, but to be honest, it’s you, Bing.” So that was sort of our relationship. It was formed in that way, in that context, early on.

With Zack, though, I was questioning whether he even had this emotional grappling [with the abuse in his past] that I feel like Keire and I have. At a certain point, I almost gave up on it. I was like, “Oh, yeah, Zack just doesn’t operate on that level.” But then, of course, he does — it’s just, again, that his softness hardened over time. He’s older than Keire. But it was there.

What I struggled with the most was when Nina told me about the abuse. Nina is the most vulnerable person in this film. She’s a woman. She doesn’t have the same emotional and communal support network that Zack and Keire do. It’s a question of safety: How can we do this where it’s safe for Nina? And it’s a question of privacy: How do we navigate this thing that maybe Nina will not want in the film? It’s an ongoing conversation. She could maybe want it in the film now, but maybe not later.

That was the struggle. That was ultimately what drove me to enter the film in the way I did. I just wanted to try to find some way to legitimize myself in a way that could answer the question, “What gives me the right to go there with her?”

Keire, Bing, and Zack, with their boards
Keire, Bing, and Zack, with their boards.
Hulu

Alissa Wilkinson

I’m fascinated by your choice to leave yourself in the film. I’m sure making that decision was a struggle, as you thought about how to justify your existence in the film as a character. How did you approach that decision?

Bing Liu

I didn’t want to make a personal doc. There just wasn’t a reason to put myself in the film, on a story mechanics level, until Nina told me about the abuse. Then it was like, well, this is obviously the filmmaker digging into this, and all of a sudden the filmmaker has an intent and an arc, and now going back into the filmmaker’s background feels really earned. I know I’m speaking about myself in the third person [laughs], but it’s sort of how I thought about it. I didn’t really think about me in the film as me, if you know what I mean; I think that’s what helped me get myself in the film.

Alissa Wilkinson

Your main subjects are pretty young, and sometimes in documentaries, younger subjects react to the presence of a camera differently than older people do. Maybe they’re more used to being filmed — for instance, in skate videos. But you also point your camera at your mother in some very raw interview segments where she answers some questions, asked by you, about your own childhood abuse. Did you notice any contrasts between your various subjects based on age or some other factor?

Bing Liu

I think it depends on how people consume media. Like, Keire, Zack, and my mom, they don’t watch a lot of TV, and by extension, they don’t watch a lot of reality TV. I think reality TV has done a number on what potential documentary subjects think about storytelling, in a weird way.

For example, I was working on this other project in 2015 called America to Me. It’s set in a high school. These people watched a lot of TV, and they were so much more conscious of what we were doing. We had a lot more meta-conversations about, like, “I don’t want this to be in the film,” or, “I don’t want to be perceived in this way.” They were thinking two or three steps ahead in ways that Zack, Keire, and my mom weren’t.

Alissa Wilkinson

As a filmmaker, does that frighten you? Does it intrigue you? Or maybe excite you for the possibilities that presents?

Bing Liu

It makes me feel like I have an obligation or responsibility to really examine the power dynamics of what I’m doing. … One of the things that I did was tell my subjects that I was gonna show them the film well ahead of the film being finished. How they were represented and what kind of access I had was an ongoing conversation.

For example, I asked Nina at one point, “How do you feel like being a main character in the film now?” She was like, “Oh, I didn’t realize I was a main character.” It was weird to me because I was more heavily focusing on her for a year at that point, but I noticed a change after that. She leaned on me a little bit more to express her emotions, use me as an outlet for what was going on.

For someone like Zack, I kept checking in, especially after his story became more turbulent. I was checking in and saying, “How do you feel about all of this stuff being captured? I’m gonna show you the film, are you okay coming out to film festivals and talking about this?” Every single time, he was like, “What you get is what you get. I’ll come out to film festivals. I trust you, and I don’t need to see the film before it’s done.” [Laughs.] Of course, I showed him the film.

Alissa Wilkinson

I can imagine that there are some people who might think that making a film from such a subjective viewpoint is a bad thing. But in Minding the Gap, it seems like a very good thing — you’re making your ethical choices differently than a more “objective” viewer might.

Bing Liu

Yeah, especially because this film is so thematically about violence in the home. With that theme, there’s a lot of issues of privacy that come up, and they parallel issues of privacy in documentary filmmaking. So it made a lot of sense to lean into exposing the filmmaking behind the film.

Keire, one of the subjects of Hulu documentary Minding the Gap, performs a trick.
Keire does a trick.
Kartemquin Films

Alissa Wilkinson

Can you talk a little bit about the scenes with your mother?

Bing Liu

Yeah … [Nervous laughter]

Alissa Wilkinson

They’re really raw.

Bing Liu

I didn’t see my mom a lot growing up or talk with her a lot, because of our life situation. When I moved to Chicago for work, we sort of lost touch, because I didn’t feel safe being around the house anymore. Then finally, when she decided to divorce her husband [Liu’s stepfather] for the last time, she finally moved out to her own place, and then I was able to see her in a safe space. That happened during the making of the film.

I tried having conversations about everything that happened, about Dennis, my stepfather, and we never really got too far. We got maybe 10 or 15 minutes in and then it would just get too upsetting or triggering or hurtful.

And plus, I feel like I built up so much of a coping mechanism of blocking things out. I still to this day have a lot of trouble remembering things that happened to me in my childhood. One of the things I discovered from walking around the house with my brother is that I remember a lot of things that happened to him that he doesn’t remember, and he remembers a lot of things that he saw happen to me that I don’t remember. So that coping mechanism is real. It’s this blacked-out thing in our memory.

And that happens when I talk to my mom too. It’s so painful, even a 15-minute conversation about the past, that I don’t remember what we talked about. I was really excited in this weird way to have all these cameras in that scene because it’s like, oh, it’ll be part of a longer conversation, but also I’ll be able to have this footage to help me remember what was said.

Alissa Wilkinson

Did your mother see the film before it premiered?

Bing Liu

She did. I sent her a link. I didn’t see it with her in person, because I was in LA at the time. She was like, I understand why you made the film more now. She said that she was really proud of me. And she said she talked to her co-workers about me — in a proud way.

Minding the Gap opens in limited theaters and begins streaming on Hulu on August 17.

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