For just a moment at the beginning of Minding the Gap, an astounding documentary opening this Friday at the Siskel Film Center, you might wonder if this is a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age tale. The camera pans from shots of three boys skating through abandoned parking garages to them shotgunning beers at parties. It quickly becomes clear, however, that something deeper is at play. None of them have positive relationships with their families. In fact, they say early on that they formed their own family together — “to look out for each other, because no one else was looking out for us.”
From that moment on, filmmaker Bing Liu unearths the devastating level of abuse, hardship, and neglect each young man faced during their childhoods. All three grew up in nearby Rockford, and all three are a part of the same tight-knit skateboarding community. There’s 17-year-old Keire, a young African American dishwasher trying to understand his complicated relationship with his father. Zach, 22, is a white roofer and new father whose own history of abuse leads to a toxic relationship with his girlfriend. And then Bing, the director, who turns the camera on himself to share just why it was so important to tell these stories.
Ahead of its release, we sat down with Liu to discuss his process for making the film and what he was hoping to achieve.
How did you choose your subjects for this film?
It involved me driving around the country to a bunch of different cities — Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis — and following dozens of people for over a year. Each of them was connected to this skateboarding community in some way, and had experienced trauma of some kind. But it wasn’t until about a year in I met Keire and fell in love with his story. And then I found out Zach was going to be a father and I started focusing my energy on them. But I still followed other people around for maybe another six months … it was sort of a weaning-off process.
The documentary reads as though you three were great childhood friends, is that not accurate?
Well Keire is seven years younger than me and Zach is two years younger than me and they’re pretty good friends. But I didn’t really meet Keire until I started filming this. Zach and Keire knew who I was because I was always the guy making skate videos. I saw Zach on and off at the skate park and filmed him a couple times. But it was not like we had this Stand By Me childhood friendship. I think part of why people think that is because they were so vulnerable and open with me. People assume only friends can get to that level of vulnerability, but that’s not normal.
So why Zach and Keire?
Zach had this story of becoming a father with his teenage girlfriend, and no one else had that. It seemed like it was going to be a rich story. And with Keire, in the first or second interview he opened up about crying after being beaten. This was the first time we had spoken about it and I recognized he was going through this very deep emotional journey of processing it. Capturing that journey felt important.
As it unfolded that Zach was repeating a lot of the abusive patterns you and Keire had experienced as children, how did that shape how you portrayed Zach?
It’s a story about how you would experience Zach if you fell in love with him. He was really charismatic in the beginning, and then he stops doing well and becomes abusive, but you know in some ways you are still rooting for him because you know he doesn’t have that much education or parenting. We’re not going to move forward with this issue if we keep telling the same story from the same perspective. And just having this collective understanding of abusers as monsters is unproductive. I just tried to humanize him and really show all the disparate parts of him. I didn’t want to write him off.
It seems like you tried to adopt a similar technique with the women in the film?
Yeah. People wrongly ask all the time, “Why does she stay with them?” But if you look at the story emotionally, it’s just so complex. These women aren’t stupid or unaware. We need to have empathy for the complexity of the situation.
Had you intended on inserting your own story into Minding the Gap as much as you did?
Not until the end. It was when Nina told me about Zach’s abuse. That was a watershed moment. I realized I needed to find out a way to portray this story ethically — I needed to go back and show why it was important to me, that I actually understood the pain and the complexity of a relationship like that from witnessing it in my own childhood. That was sort of what originally pushed me to want to interview my mom.
So do you see this film as a way of you processing your own trauma or does it serve another purpose?
I think the original intention was not for me. I was making the film for someone like my teenage self, because there weren’t a lot of people to talk about this stuff with. But I think the film unexpectedly allowed Keire and Zach to process their experiences more fully. When you’re growing up, you don’t have any time. A million things are flying at you: jobs, girlfriends, school. I had to do work outside of the film to push myself to be vulnerable and see a therapist. I think if I would have actually used this film as processing it would have been a mess.
How did you intend to portray Rockford? Did you want to comment at all on how the place may perpetuate cycles of abuse?
I have seen a lot of films that focus on a poor community and it’s almost like poverty porn: It pins the blame on the place and I didn’t want to do that in this film. I took a domestic violence course while filming this documentary, and one of the myths I learned is that domestic violence only happens in working-class homes or in families of color. But it actually happens across the board and throughout society. For me violence happens within families because of rules of masculinity that young boys inherit over time. Toxic masculinity happens everywhere, not just Rockford. But then [in Rockford] specifically there is a serious lack of resources for people, because it is a poorer community. When young boys are trying to find different ways to flout the traditional masculinity script that every young boy experiences, there are just fewer routes there.
Right now there are a ton of conversations happening around toxic masculinity and abuse. What do you think your film adds to that conversation?
From what I have read and understand of the #MeToo movement, the sense of the conversation is that there are many men who are taking advantage of their built-in power and lean into the system that is set up for them to have more power. Everyone is acknowledging that it is wrong, but there isn’t very much being done about it. I think Minding the Gap explores the issue of why it’s happening, and how men rationalize this behavior, how it relates to women, and opens up the conversation about right and wrong in terms of toxic masculinity. It gives an emotional landscape to it.
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