The director of ‘Minding the Gap’ discusses growing up with a violent stepfather and how he and his fellow skaters learned to cope with toxic male figures
Broken young men populate Minding the Gap, a crushing documentary about skateboarders. But the injuries aren’t physical, the result of skaters crashing their boards into the pavement and putting their bodies in harm’s way while performing outrageous tricks. No, the wounds are all internal, psychic and often unspoken.
The movie is the decade-plus labor of love of Bing Liu, a 29-year-old filmmaker who has been crafting skate videos since he was a teenager in Rockford, Illinois, a crumbling blue-collar town about 90 miles west of Chicago. For his directorial debut, Liu was interested in exploring the home lives that shaped his fellow skateboarders, focusing on two men from his hometown, an outgoing white guy close to his age name Zack and a shy, sensitive black kid named Keire. Broken homes were a common refrain — as were distant or abusive fathers — and the more that Liu spent time with his subjects, the more he realized that Minding the Gap couldn’t simply be about their experience. He’d also have to share his own childhood trauma of living with a physically and emotionally abusive stepfather who tormented him and his mother.
The resulting film is a poignant juxtaposition of poetic images of skateboarders as they soar through the air and candid, heartbreaking conversations with these skaters as they share what they’ve endured. Even more heartbreaking is Minding the Gap’s realization that this cycle of abuse is sometimes being carried over to the next generation, forcing Liu to confront his subjects about the destructive lessons they’re embodying through their own deplorable behavior.
But Minding the Gap isn’t just a study of crippled masculinity. Liu presents us with a world of abused women — including his own mother — so that we observe in intimate detail what the effects are of prolonged mistreatment. This is a terribly sad film, but its power comes from Liu’s unadorned portrayal of these difficult lives — and his willingness to be a chronicler of domestic violence’s aftershocks.
Minding the Gap, which comes to theaters and Hulu on August 17, won Liu a special jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for Breakthrough Filmmaking. As someone who’s long been drawn to the phenomenon of domestic violence, he understands the complexity of the issue — and the challenges involved with being an ally to someone going through abuse.
Speaking by phone from New York, Liu recently talked to me about his documentary and his relationship with skating, which is still incredibly important to him. But we also talked about the sport’s macho subculture — and why Liu doesn’t relate to it — as well as what it’s like to make a movie that, in his words, is about “coming-of-age when having a good father isn’t an option.” (Warning: This interview contains spoilers.)
How old were you when you first got interested in skating?
At 12 — I was in 6th or 7th grade — I was in a literature class, and there was this guy next to me I liked because he would draw Teletubbies smoking weed. That made me laugh. Then he brought this finger skateboard — Tech Deck, this little skateboard toy — and he used it to skate on the literature books. I was like, “That’s kinda cool,” and so I asked for a skateboard from my mom for Christmas and she got me one.
In the movie, it’s clear that skateboarding offers your subjects an escape from their lives. Was that part of the appeal for you, too?
It was something to get obsessed with — I don’t think I was conscious of [my ulterior motives] in the same way that I was when I was older. I think many people in their 20s haven’t quite articulated it, but then people [get to a place where they think], Oh, now, I understand. Back then, it was more subconscious.
Early on in Minding the Gap, we hear someone talk about what an antiquated notion it is of “real men” being all macho. But I wondered about the world of skateboarding: How macho or masculine is that subculture?
I can only speak to the time that I grew up in, but when I started [making skateboard videos], I was learning how to use a camera and editing. I met these two kids from a suburb in Chicago who treated skate videos like an artist would treat a painting or a sculpture — they were looking at people like Spike Jonze and people who were making Transworld skate magazine videos. They did artsy things, like shoot in 16mm, and used really sensitive music. That’s something I latched onto, and from that point on, I gravitated toward the more artsy, feminine side of skateboarding.
One thing I understand about skateboarding is that it’s not this monolithic, singular culture — there’s a smattering of all different types of people within that world, and all different types of young men. So I started using things, like Cat Power, in my skate videos. I gravitated toward using music about the difficulties in relationships or feeling lonely.
Keire is seven years younger than me — I didn’t get to know him until I was in my 20s. Zack was two years younger than me, so I met him when I was 17, and then I moved away to Chicago when I was 19. They saw my videos — I was the one making skate videos in Rockford that everybody saw — and they latched onto the sensitivity that I had in my skate videos. And in this weird, sort of reflective way, I think I influenced the way that they ultimately came to see masculinity. [laughs]
You got Keire and Zack to open up and be vulnerable in remarkable ways. How hard was that?
Keire opened up the first time I interviewed him, which was early in the project. I sort of played therapist growing up to a lot of people, and I kinda relished that role — I got a lot of practice in that. So with Keire, the first time we really sat down, he had this two-hour catharsis about his father. He never stopped having this emotional vulnerability.
With Zack, I could always sense that he wasn’t giving me what he actually felt until that one interview [near the end of the film] where he really lets down his guard and really tells me how he’s actually feeling. It took some time with Zack in terms of showing that vulnerability and emotional hurt.
The film suggests that these cycles of abuse get passed down from generation to generation — it basically becomes accepted that this is okay behavior.
I’m very interested in the subject because it’s what I experienced. I took a lot of sociology courses and really dug into the cycle of violence. I took a 40-hour domestic-violence training course while making the film — I wanted to understand that generational cycle. I thought about [domestic violence] in terms of discipline — like, physical discipline — but I also thought about it in terms of “How does a father affect a child? What gets passed on from generation to generation?”
What did you learn in that training course?
Just how common it is. There’s this myth that [domestic violence] only happens in [poorer] families or families of color — it’s actually really common across all aspects of society. There’s such little understanding of how complex situations of domestic violence can be. That’s what leads to a lot of restraining-order laws that don’t make sense — and also the way that police officers will respond and not do the right thing.
It all boils down to that maybe we’re uncomfortable with the idea of [dealing with] something that’s private. We’re so uncomfortable that we’re doing ourselves a disservice by not engaging and learning and talking about domestic violence.
Nina, who’s Zack’s girlfriend and the mother of his baby, eventually tells you that Zack is being abusive to her. How badly did you want to confront him about his behavior?
It’d be the obvious thing to want to do that. But I knew I had a unique opportunity to get at the psychology of why abusive behavior happens from the [abuser’s perspective]. So the fundamental question wasn’t “Did he hit her?” — it was understanding. The bigger goal was to try to give the conversation of domestic violence a different sort of window so that we can start trying to move forward [for] the abuser and survivor.
But with that being said, I knew I was affecting the story because, again, with issues of domestic violence it’s so private. You need to give people a window into [what’s happening], because otherwise it becomes this he-said/she-said thing. I would have stepped in if I felt like there was an issue of safety, but I knew Nina had moved out, and that’s when she told me about the abuse.
Because we spend a lot of time with Zack in the movie — who was abused as a boy but doesn’t seem like an abuser himself — it’s shocking to hear Nina’s accusation. I found myself not wanting to believe it could possibly be true. In real time while making the film, how did you feel?
Right when I heard it, I completely believed Nina, because I’d grown up with a man who acted completely different outside the house than he did inside the house — my stepfather. So I was like, “Oh yeah, of course Zack hit her. Why didn’t I see it before?” But I also knew, “Oh, other people aren’t going to believe her.” So that was the thought in that moment: “Okay, how do we deal with this doubt that people are going to have?”
There’s a lot of discussion in our culture right now about how men can be good allies. Thinking about what happens in Minding the Gap, what would a good ally do? Is calling the cops and reporting the abuse the right move?
Going to the police could be dangerous depending on the situation. Keire’s mom, my mom, Nina — the reason why it’s important their perspective be in the film [is to see] their struggle of both wanting to be good mothers but also struggling to have these loving romantic relationships. That’s complex — it’s not as simple as “Someone call the cops so that I can get out of the situation.”
If you call the cops, you’ve thrown into this relationship a possibly dangerous element, because the cops could come and be like, “Okay, we can throw this guy in jail and that’ll teach him.” But the emotions of love between the two people — no matter how toxic — that’s not going to destroy that feeling. That’s going to keep them bonded, and who knows how the guy will react being sent to jail?
In terms of being an ally, it’s about calling out men for toxic behavior in general. It’s about men owning up to the fact that, systemically, they’re given a more privileged place — they have more power, and so there’s a responsibility that should come with that.
How did you make the decision to include your own story as part of the film? Did that take a lot of soul-searching in terms of being okay with revealing that much about your past?
It was more like I didn’t want to make a personal doc. It was helpful for me to talk about my situation to certain trusted friends [when I was younger] — I recognized the power of that, and so I feel like I’d already gotten over that hump of being okay talking about it. But it wasn’t until Nina told me about Zack being abusive that I had to do some soul-searching: “How do I deal with this as a filmmaker?” It made going into my backstory feel earned so that people could understand why I want to know so badly why they’re making the decisions they’re making.
Was it hard to enlist your mom as an interview subject to talk about her being abused?
Not really — you got to understand, my mom and I didn’t see a lot of each other growing up. There was probably a lot of, like, guilt on both of our sides about that. We probably both blamed ourselves to a certain extent for my stepfather. But we both wanted to talk about it. I called her up, and I was like, “Hey, can I interview you for the project? I want to talk about my stepfather.” And she was like, “Yeah” — it just became about picking a date that worked well for both of us.
Minding the Gap made me think about the way that we blame survivors — how we’re judgmental about women who stay with their abusers. The women you interviewed, was shame part of the equation?
I think for Nina, it was such a new experience — I think she was less self-aware about her feelings. But my mom is just so open about how she actually feels — the guilt and shame are so palpable. Women feel this pressure to be a good mother — even if they’re not mothers. When I talk to people who aren’t mothers, and I ask them if they want to be one, they’re ashamed to say no. There’s this societal pressure, to some extent, so that’s an added hurdle that’s emotionally difficult for them in terms of connecting with their children.
The documentary touches on how guys can have trouble expressing emotions or crying. This still seems like a huge issue for men as they go through adolescence.
It’s a common trope — guys not being able to express emotion — but to me, it’s more interesting to look at the reasons why those emotions get repressed in the first place. Oftentimes it happens through abuse in earlier childhood development.
For example, my stepdad literally would beat me more for crying. It was like this Pavlovian conditioning — “Well, if I cry I feel more pain” — which is so paradoxical, it’s backwards. “I’m going to hold in the releasing of this pain.” And from my conversations with Zack and Keire, they had similar experiences — they were taught, either directly or indirectly, that it’s just not okay.
It’s this idea that we have to be trained not to feel by our fathers.
But in a weird way, it does become a coping mechanism that’s useful. If you think about it from a child’s perspective, it’s like, “I’m going to steel myself from feeling emotions. Whatever’s going on in my life — some family drama or some strife — at least I can control not feeling sad or angry about it.” But then as you get older and you’re trying to function in mainstream society, there’s something really unfortunate about it.
Throughout the film, you show PSA billboards around Rockford advocating the importance of fatherhood. (“It’s 3 p.m. Where are your kids?” “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.”) What was the reason you wanted to show those?
I just kept noticing them — they weren’t hard to miss because they were all over town. A part of me while I was filming them thought to myself, “This is so fucking cheesy, Bing, people are going to laugh at these.” I was much more excited by and spent more time hunting down empty skate spots that looked visually interesting. But the billboards seemed to please audiences — they were on-the-nose and sort of tacky in a way that only could’ve worked in a documentary, in that stranger-than-fiction sort of way.
But there’s a reason why those billboards are around town, why there was funding to post those up all over Rockford. It was, and still is, a popularly touted solution to many societal ills. But the reality is that many times it’s just not feasible. Minding the Gap from the outset was meant to look at coming-of-age when having a good father isn’t an option.
You said earlier that you enjoy being a therapist to your friends. What do you get out of that? Does it help your ego?
I like knowing that other people are sensitive, too. We live in a world that’s so logical, sensible and practical — I operate on a much more emotional level, and so, it makes me feel less alone, you know? Also, it feels good helping people and knowing it’s possible for them to grow emotionally. I don’t know if it makes my ego bigger, because I don’t feel like… it’s not like I’m doing it in front of other people. [laughs] I’m not, like, bragging about it. But I will say this: I do feel good when I hear a friend tell another friend, “Oh, Bing’s a really good listener.”
Do you skateboard much anymore?
Not as much as I used to. I’m in New York right now, and I skated last night with my friends for 45 minutes. It’s hard to find time to do it, but it’s still such a spiritual, grounding reset button. It feels nice to be on the ground level of the grime and the grit of a city that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I’m just like skating with friends, and a homeless person walks by and we have an interaction — he’ll say, “Do a kickflip,” and I’ll do one. I think I’m going to be skating for years to come.