The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Bing Liu, director of Sundance award-winning doc ‘Minding the Gap’ talks to CC2K

Written by: Jessica Pena, CC2K Staff Writer

With the lives of our youth dictated by constant societal restraints and stigmas of pain, Minding the Gap is a documentary determined to alleviate that fear of being judged and isolated for those growing up through physical or emotional abuse. It’s never an easy subject to watch, much less to talk about it.

Minding the Gap is a raw and contemplative examination of abuse, race, identity, and class between three young men in the American Rust Belt. I had the opportunity to interview Bing Liu, director of the Sundance award-winning doc who had a lot to say about how filmmaking and skateboarding opened up an organic platform for him to not only connect with other people, but put out something sincerely moving.

With your film set in Rockford, Illinois, can you tell us about your youth growing up there and how this narrative of identity and one’s awareness of their life led you to making the film? Where was the creative seed planted?

My mother and I were immigrants for the first eight years of my life. We’d moved all over the country–from China to Alabama to California to Rockford, Illinois when I was eight. She was a single mother and I spent a lot of time alone in my imagination. I didn’t have a substantial amount of friends until I started skateboarding, but once I did we got to experience a lot of Rockford because we’d bike, skate, and drive around to both the seediest and the most sterile parts…in search of skate spots. This was an eye-opening side-effect of skateboarding I later realized. Even now, as I travel to film festivals, I bring my skateboard because it allows me to get out of the often ritzy parts of where the screenings are and hang out with the 12-year-old with the duct-taped shoes smoking a cigarette behind the skatepark in the working class neighborhood.

Growing up with friends helped me survive, but growing up without a consistent role model left my identity and soul a little un-moored. I think that’s where the creative seed was planted–this curiosity for who I am, who people are, and what it all means became a more gnawing question as I grew older. When I was 17 I made a short film that emulated Richard Linklater’s Slacker, where I had some outsider friends of mine wander around the city, improvising philosophical and banal conversations with each other. Then, when I was 19, I made a short film that emulated Crash–much more scripted–which got me a partial scholarship to go to film school. I opted for a cheaper option of community college and then majoring in English at a state university.

In my early 20’s I made a short doc about two Vietnamese-American immigrants searching for identity and remembering family traumas from their childhoods. It was this project that made me realize how enriching it was to explore themes personal to my experiences. Soon after, I made a half-doc and half-skate-video that asked skateboard videographers and photographers why they film and photograph skateboarding. Along the way, I discovered that a lot of people in the skateboarding community had a lot to get off their chests. These projects set the stage for me to do Minding the Gap–I wanted to explore skateboarders’ darker inner lives in a documentary.

When I think of the best kind of cinema it always brings me back to the simple reflection on human experiences and how we adapt and integrate ourselves into the culture around us, societal challenges, identity, and coping. In Minding the Gap you’re looking into these corners of one’s existence and you’re so careful with it, never aggressive, although the gritty backdrop of hardship proves its existence. Were there any early influences, whether they were your own stories, an artist’s work, or other similar films, which got the juices flowing for this particular documentary?

I remember watching Waking Life when I was 15 and it just blew me away. It was a such a fresh and original aesthetic and story, but within it is Linklater’s signature element of human interactions that feel deceivingly simple. I was also obsessed with the movie Gummo as a teenager. It captured this sense of time and place within a community that you wouldn’t usually get to see but which also felt hauntingly familiar. Part of my aesthetic choice in Minding the Gap comes from having seen so many films deal with challenged people and communities being painted in this very tawdry, tabloid, or benighted light. I was rebelling against how I feel like an outsider would portray Rockford.

Skateboarding plays such an important role of escapism to you all, as the documentary shows. I think we all know someone at one point in our lives who skates and is just so carefree in that world. For me, it was my cousin growing up. I’ll admit that besides growing up on all the cool Tony Hawk video games with him, I can’t balance on a skateboard to save my life! Tell us a little about how integral skating was to your youth and how for so many, it’s hobbies like these that become like home when the rest of your world can be tough. 

My interest first got piqued when I saw a friend of mine in middle school bring a finger skateboard to class. Then one day I went to his house after school and played Tony Hawk for the first time. One of his neighbors was an amazing skateboarder, and seeing him made me ask my mom for a board for Christmas that year. She and I had at the time moved out of my stepfather’s place into our own apartment because things were getting too intense (they remained married). In my new neighborhood I met other kids my age who all skated. The rest was history. At the time, I couldn’t countenance why I was doing it and why it was all I could think about and why, when I was bored in class, my mind would drift and I’d daydream about grinding the teacher’s desk. 

In high school I watched a really artsy skate video called First Love, shot with a lot of 16mm and interviews of skateboarders trying earnestly to explain why they love it. I’ve since seen lots of other media trying to answer that question but none…quite getting at it in a way that felt like they got it. I think this is the great paradox–you can’t explain something so seemingly simple like skateboarding without over-complicating it, and coming up short. That’s the genius of the film Kids–it’s a not a film trying to explain skateboarding, but just (craft) a genuine story set in the world of skateboarding and yet, it answers that question of “why?” so much more fully. It’s more about the contours of life off the board that makes the time on the board so special.

Did you meet Zack and Kiere through it? Did it at one point become a sort of lifeline?

I was the main filmer in town when I was growing up, so Zack and Keire knew who I was before I’d ever met them. I didn’t meet Zack until I was 17, and we only skated a handful of times before I moved to Chicago a couple years later. He recently told me he had always dreamed of being in one of my skateboard montages and was over the moon about finally being at the same skate spot as me at the same time. Keire is seven years younger than me, so I didn’t really get to know him until I was in my mid-20’s, a year into making Minding the Gap. I later discovered I’d happened to film him as a kid getting into a fight at the skatepark, then built up the rest of his childhood self with footage from other filmers who he’d grown up filming with.

While not only directing, editing, and producing, you also came to helm the cinematography of the film. Tell us about your experience using the Glidecam for shots and how your visuals come to help the viewer connect to the story. Do you feel a freedom in capturing skateboarding and the reflection of your subjects?

I first came to know the Glidecam when I was assisting on a high-end wedding, one of my first paid gigs. It looked ridiculous at the time, this videographer running around a bride and groom as they stood beneath a willow tree. I later went on to work with Steadicam operators on films and TV shows, and realized the Glidecam is a much more affordable, low-key version of the Steadicam. In both cases, they’re an amazing tool based off the same concept of transferring weight to your body to take bumps out while giving you the butter smooth touch-of-a-finger ability to pan, tilt, and yaw while running up and down, backwards and around.

I’d seen the Steadicam used for skateboarding before, but it was under-slung to accentuate the footwork. Like with all my shooting though, I wanted to give an eye-level perspective, as the film was first and foremost a human story, rather than a glorification of grinds and flips. I bought the Glidecam for $500 and outfitted it with a Canon 5D MK3, a 16-35mm lens, and a small Rode Videomic and spent a year shooting with it until I got to the point where it just felt like an extension of my body. One of the things that this eye-level wide-perspective does is it allows non-skateboarders to experience what skateboarding feels like, emotionally, which for many skateboarders is much more feminine and akin to dancing and jazz than skateboarding often gets portrayed.

The main subjects, your friends growing up, really let themselves unravel in front of the camera. Were there any obstacles in the process of getting Zack and Kiere to open up to, not just you, but to the larger audience this would be released to? How do all of your journeys parallel each other and culminate to something painfully endearing? I’m curious to know what you hope this film can do for others watching who feel lost in their youth, looking for a way to cope with pain.

I feel like young people relish the chance to talk about their inner lives, but the main obstacle is fear of judgment. A judgment-free listening ear is hard to come by for many, and I think they could (understand) that I was coming from a place of curiosity and care. It was something I had a lot of practice with in my teenage years, when I started enjoying helping my friends by listening to them and acting as their confidante for tough life issues.

The parallel between all our stories is none of us had confronted the past, and we each found different ways of doing so. The way I did it was by making this film, which in turn pressed Keire and Zack to do so for themselves. I hope people walk away remembering that, despite where our lives ended up after all these years, in examining our past and beginning to reckon with it, we’ve all grown to a better understanding of ourselves, and despite how cathartic and freeing skateboarding can be, there are many things it can’t help you with.

It’s evident to see that masculinity plays a crucial, silent role in the film. How was it to put a camera to young men dealing with their sensitive situations and helping to make it a viable antidote to the culture around them? How has your time filming affected your understanding of these topics growing up and their sympathies?

I wasn’t quite thinking of masculinity when I was making the film; it was more that, after countless intimate conversations with skateboarders over the years, I knew there existed within young men and also young women this deep softness that they wanted to find a safe space to release. Part of the reason I chose to follow Keire was because in our first or second interview we ever did together, in that attic where we’re commiserating about crying after getting beaten, I realized he had a softness that hadn’t hardened completely. His father’s death a year prior was so fresh that he hadn’t subconsciously decided whether he hated his father, loved him, or both. I feel like Zack’s childhood hurt had been buried and repressed for a longer period of time, which is why it was so late in filming that he revealed his true vulnerability. The whole process affirmed my belief that everyone, no matter how deeply they’ve buried or how far they’ve run away from their feelings, has this soft side to them that can be accessed if they’re willing to put in the work.

Congrats on your film winning the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking at this year’s Sundance Film Festival! Being an Asian American filmmaker shining a light on a cultural and urban-centric story, how do you feel about the impact and awareness of it? Have you always gravitated to diverse and insightful filmmaking methods and how do you take this onto your next project?

I was slack-jawed even getting into Sundance, so this whole journey has been an enormous thing I’m incredibly grateful for. I do feel a special pride in not only being an Asian American filmmaker, but also shedding light on an especially taboo but also problematic [issue] in the Asian American community. Because my roots are in skateboarding, which at its core values creativity and is cynical about inauthenticity, I want to keep creating stories [a] younger self of mine would want to watch.

‘Minding the Gap’ will be released in select theaters and Hulu on August 17.