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Minding the Gap
Keire in Minding the GapCourtesy Dogwoof

Director Bing Liu on how he made a skate film that unpacks real trauma

Oscar-nominated documentary Minding the Gap digs into generations of abuse – against the escapist backdrop of skateboarding

Minding The Gap is one of those rare, special documentaries that kicks off on one foot and then evolves into something entirely unexpected. For director Bing Liu, the project began over a decade ago, when as a teenager he started filming fellow skateboarders in his Rust Belt town in Illinois. Gradually, he began tracking the stories of two friends in particular: Kiere, a sweet-natured dishwasher, and Zack, a roofer – both of whom opened up on camera about the childhood abuse they’d suffered.

The film began life as a study of skateboarding, masculinity, and fathers, but it shifted when Liu discovered in the process that one of his subjects was himself an abuser. This news forced Liu – himself an abuse victim – to re-evaluate his position in the production in order for it to continue. It’s a reckoning showed in real time, in an immensely tender way. Liu made the decision to appear in the film himself, in order to show his working as a filmmaker. One of the film’s most moving scenes is his interview with his mother about his own traumatic childhood.

Minding the Gap is an intuitive and complex account of intergenerational violence, interlaced with the spectacular highs of skateboarding; that’s why it earned not only a spot on Obama’s Favourite Movies of 2018, but an Academy Award nomination. Dazed spoke with Liu in London a few weeks ahead of the Oscars about what it was like to shoot a documentary that involved confronting and processing his own demons.

You had a different connection with (Zack’s girlfriend) Nina in the film compared to Zack and Kiere. How did you build up that relationship?

Bing Liu: I filmed Nina for the first time after she’d moved out of her house with Zack, as I thought it was important to start tracking her story. We went to the mall and I filmed her playing with Elliott (Nina and Zack’s son), then we went back to her aunt’s, and that’s where she told me about the abuse.

I just kept following up with her. A year into filming I asked her how she felt about being a main character in the film and she replied, “I didn’t realise that I was a main character.” After that she really opened up.

Much later I found out that I was the first person that Nina had told. I think that speaks to the silence around the shame and self-censoring that can happen with domestic abuse.

Since you completed the film have your opinions on the people involved changed?

Bing Liu: I didn’t really have a stance on Zack back then, except that I knew that I didn’t want people to just dismiss him. That would defeat the purpose of what we were trying to do.

In so many of the domestic violence films that I’d seen, I feel like the rhetoric was always that they show you the effects of violence on survivors, like that’s going to make you care enough to do something about it. I realised that I had an opportunity to look at what causes it. It’s almost like in medicine; people really care about holistic ways to treat now. I was thinking about that with the cycle of violence.

If we dismiss people like Zack we’re dismissing a part of the puzzle, and I don’t think that’s the solution. But it’s not a zero sum game, where if we don’t dismiss him then we just accept him or we don’t hold him accountable. That’s not what I’m saying either.

You decided to include your own story in the film to frame the themes ethically. What were you expecting to happen when you made that decision?

Bing Liu: I was thinking about it as a filmmaker; I didn’t go in expecting to learn that much about myself.

There’s a point in the film where I ask Nina, “how do you want to proceed?” with regards to the abuse. We were just so blown away watching that scene back, and ultimately that’s what resulted in me putting myself in the film as a character.

It was a very late decision to interview my mom, and the version that we went with in the film was something that I was blind to at the time. It’s like I’m trying to settle a score, trying to make sense of it all.

“I didn’t go in expecting to learn that much about myself” – Bing Liu

There’s a point where Kiere and Zack begin to grow apart in the film. How did that affect you?

Bing Liu: I see myself in Kiere in so many ways, beyond how our fathers treated us, and one of those things was – and I mean he is eight years younger than me – when I was his age, I slowly started realising that there are certain friends who are good to look up to and to be around, and there are some that are not.

Do you think that comes with growing up?

Bing Liu: I’m 30 and I’m still figuring out what that’s supposed to be like.

You’ve cited Richard Linklater and Harmony Korine as filmmakers that you admire. What do you like about their work especially?

Bing Liu: When you’re an adolescent and you see a film for the first time that really speaks to you, it feels like it’s so much bigger than it is. But when I saw Gummo, it reflected so much of the landscape and the people and the types of ridiculous things that people were doing to get by. It reflected a lot of what I witnessed growing up in Rockford.

With Linklater there’s this film called Waking Life that’s just like a big inquisition. It was so earnest in its curiosity and there was no judgement. It matched up with my existential angst that I had when I was a teenager when I was like, “what is the meaning of life?”

I still want to hold onto those things because they seem so precious and lacking in cynicism. I think there’s such a battle to keep cynicism at bay.

Minding The Gap is released in the UK on March 22