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‘Minding the Gap:’ From Mini-DV Skate Videos to a Mindful, Affecting Documentary

Director Bing Liu "wanted to explore the connected themes of skateboarding and violence in the home through a character-driven approach."

“They grew up together in Rockford, Ill., three boys united by their love of skateboarding,” A.O. Scott writes about Bing Liu’s documentary Minding the Gap. “At a certain point—around middle school, it seems—one of them, Bing Liu, began videotaping their exploits.”

“I was eight years old when my single mother took a job in Rockford, a crumbling factory city two hours west of Chicago,” Liu recalls. “She remarried and had a child with a physically and mentally abusive man, remaining with him for 17 years. Because of his explosive, often unpredictable violence, I perceived the world as lacking causality: you could do the right thing or the wrong thing, but either way things might not go well for you.

“After I started skateboarding at age 13, I slowly discovered, after many bruises, broken bones and hard-earned tricks, that I’d regained a sense of control over my pain. Most importantly, I found myself in a group of outcasts much happier in the streets than at home. We spent countless hours together, making our own version of family.”

“[Skating] is not only the glue that binds them to one another through tough times but also a source of identity and meaning, a way of life and a life saver,” Scott continues. “Minding the Gap is more than a celebration of skateboarding as a sport and a subculture. With infinite sensitivity, Liu delves into some of the most painful and intimate details of his friends’ lives and his own, and then layers his observations into a rich, devastating essay on race, class and manhood in 21st-century America.” To read the full article, click here.

“Heading into my 20s, I was stricken by loss,” Liu says. “I wanted to know why, after I’d permanently escaped my home to move to Chicago, so many of my peers were falling prey to drug addictions, jail sentences, or worse. I was still filming skate videos for fun—driving solo around the country and couch-surfing with other skateboarding friends I’d met throughout the years. Eventually I began interviewing skateboarders: ‘What does skateboarding feel like,?’ ‘Who do you love more, your mom or your dad?,’ ‘Who taught you the feeling of hate?’.” These conversations often turned into unexpected therapy sessions, intimate spaces for catharsis and realizations.

“I discovered a pattern of absent, distant, and abusive father-figures—something that affected mental health, relationships, and parenting styles. A little over a year into the project, I returned to Rockford, where I sat a charming, goofy 16-year-old named Keire down in his mom’s attic to ask him about his father. He’d never talked about their relationship before and was fidgeting with the sleeves of his sweater. When he told me about his abusive father, I felt my chest tighten with anxiety. ‘Did you cry?’ I asked. ‘Wouldn’t you?’ he shot back. ‘I did cry,’ I said. We sat in silence, neither of us daring to attempt a joke.

“For the next four years, I returned to Rockford to continue following Keire as well as the ad-hoc leader of the Rockford skateboarding community, a charismatic 23-year-old named Zack, who was about to become a father himself.

“What emerges, in the course of the film, is that the three friends skated as a release, an escape, a sort of natural high to deliver them momentarily from the traumas and the agonies of their lives at home,” says Richard Brody. “The grace, the wonder, and the beauty of their balletic athletic skill, which begins the film as unalloyed youthful innocence and charm, is retroactively ravaged, as if X-rayed to reveal a deadly disease beneath its alluring surface. If the reckless, sometimes physically painful skating turns out to be deeply and irreparably symptomatic, the film—Liu’s investigations, his return home to the primal scene of his trauma—is both a mode of understanding and of self-understanding.” To read the full article, click here

“After partnering up with Kartemquin Films, I now wanted to explore the connected themes of skateboarding and violence in the home through a character-driven approach,” Liu says. “I took on a more cinema verité style, drawing inspiration from the films that resonated with me in my adolescence: Gummo, Waking Life, Kids, Slacker—stories that captivated me with their representations of growing up in a chaotic, uncertain world that I could relate to and also find hope through.”

“Often times when you watch a documentary and it’s like, why are they shooting from that angle? There’s a reason why people understand you use a 50-millimeter lens so much,” Liu tells Liz Nord. “It’s because that’s the lens that most aligns with our human eyes in terms of field of vision, depth of field. There’s a reason why over the shoulder shots are done so much is because they give the perspective of someone talking to you.

“When you’re shooting something, think about how it feels through a human in the room. Where are you standing? Because a lot of the time you’ll be shooting something and it just has the feel of like, oh, this is just the camera person standing in the corner. It doesn’t feel like perhaps there’s somebody sitting on the other side of the room looking at the people they are with.” To read the full interview, click here.

Read more: Minding the Gap Is an Astonishing Film About American Life

Read more: Minding the Gap: A Self-Questioning Documentary About What Happened to a Group of Young Skaters

Read more: Minding the Gap: How Bing Liu Turned 12 Years of Skate Footage into the Year’s Most Heartfelt Doc

Minding the Gap builds Liu’s investigations, and the personal and ethical considerations that they entail, into the film,” Brody continues. “What he discovers—and films—of his friends’ present-day lives disturbs him, and Liu grapples with his own conflicts even while filming himself grappling with them. The details of the film make for an exemplary work of reporting. 

“Liu’s clear revelation of specific yet complex events brings out psychological causality and logical connections but doesn’t impose a narrative; rather, the drama crystallizes as the events unfold. It’s a documentary in which the very nature of investigation is established—intellectually, aesthetically, and morally—by way of the personal implication of the filmmaker in the subject, of the filmmaker’s own need to make the images, to talk with the participants, to get beyond the surfaces of the settings.” To read the full article, click here.

“As I began assembling rough cuts and holding feedback screenings, people were surprised at how close I was to the subjects and themes of the film,” Liu says. “With their encouragement, I began participating in the film more, a la Sherman’s March, casting the cameraperson as a character. But then everything changed when the mother of Zack’s child told me Zack had been battering her. The heart of the film, which had been exploring how skateboarders deal with masculinity and child abuse, suddenly became much more milky with immediate and personal ramifications; I was forced to become an active participant in the story, eventually interviewing my estranged mother and half-brother about my stepfather and re-visiting old footage to find a way to tell my own story.

“In the course of editing the film, I realized that Zack, Keire and I were all harboring toxic experiences buried under the weight of years of societal and personal repression, and we all chose our own ways of dealing with that pressure. The film has given me a sense of clarity about myself and how, while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, some ways of coping aren’t sustainable.

“What’s clear from doing this project is that violence and its sprawling web of effects are perpetuated in large part because these issues remain behind closed doors, both literally and figuratively. My hope is that the characters who open doors in Minding the Gap will inspire young people struggling with something similar—that they will survive their situation, live to tell their story, and create a life of causality for themselves.”

“I’m saying child abuse has negative effects, domestic violence is complicated and wrong, but it’s also about cycles,” Liu tells Peter Kurie. “It doesn’t help to just demonize perpetrators. And I’m saying that economics has a lot to do with the way that young people are growing up today in America.

“There is a whole cottage industry of organizations that try to make documentaries have measurable impact and this is one of those films that’s on the looser, more interpretive, artistic end, that’s not as explicit,” Liu continues. “I think it’s more about the long-term effects of this film, and a lot of it is immeasurable. It has to do with incomparable things like perceptions, understanding, empathy, the way that we think about things like emotion and race and fly-over towns or whatever.” To read the full interview, click here.