Just skating by: new doc 'Minding the Gap' tells story of young boarders shadowed by difficult pasts
Coming of age film tracks three friends from Rockford, Illinois, including director Bing Liu
For young Keire Johnson, one of the stars of the new documentary Minding the Gap, skateboarding represents much, much more than a mere pastime.
"I could seriously be on the verge of having a mental breakdown but as long as I'm able to go skate, I'm completely fine," he declares in the film.
Skateboarding has played a similarly vital role in the lives of the film's other lead character, Zack Mulligan, and director Bing Liu himself. All three grew up in Rockford, Illinois in abusive homes where to get out on the streets, with four wheels under them, felt like the great escape.
"Living a life of trauma and abuse in the household, you can lose a sense of meaning," Liu told Nonfictionfilm.com, "and skateboarding gives you a sense of meaning that's just so self-created in many ways because it's so constructed. There's no rulebook to skateboarding. You can do whatever you want with it. But the important part is that you're just working really hard to achieve something."
What Liu has achieved with Minding the Gap, many critics say, is make a film that sensitively demonstrates the challenges facing many young men as they enter adulthood, especially those with pasts that have left them emotionally wounded.
Minding the Gap is playing until September 13 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. It plays Tuesday and Thursday of this week at the DocUtah International Film Festival in St. George, Utah and at other locations in the U.S., Canada and Ireland in the coming weeks [details here]. The film is also available on streaming platform Hulu.
Liu, 29, began making his documentary several years ago, initially intending it to feature a broader array of characters.
"I wanted to make this film to sort of help me explore why a lot of my friends who I grew up with weren't doing so well, both emotionally and mentally just in terms of life situations," Liu explained. "So I went around the country and interviewed skateboarders who I met over the years. And there [was] a lot of talk about really difficult, painful pasts -- sometimes very difficult, painful present situations."
Liu says the film started to gel after he encountered Johnson, then a teenager.
"I met Keire and he blew me away because I saw a younger version of myself in him," the director observed. "And what I mean by that is that a lot of people had talked about hardships and abuse but no one had quite not processed it yet... With Zack he's like, 'Oh yeah, my dad whupped my ass. Of course.' Most people were like that -- they brushed it off. There's something that had been hardened over time. Keire didn't have that hardening yet and he was willing to do the work of processing it in order to move forward and in that I saw this chance to capture that transformation."
In a director's statement, Liu recalled their earliest conversations on camera.
"He’d never talked about his parents before and, when we did our first interview, [he] was fidgeting with the sleeves of his sweater," Liu wrote. "When he told me about his abusive father, I felt my chest tighten. '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."
Liu originally didn't plan to include himself in the film or his story of abuse at the hands of his step-father.
"It wasn't about the painfulness of opening up," he maintained. "I feel like that's something that I had explored in my adolescence and talking to people in order to just help me survive, actually... But I didn't really see a need to put myself in the film, just on a storytelling level, like why would I be in the film?"
What changed his mind was learning that his friend Zack had become abusive himself, in his relationship with the mother of his young child.
"From that I really had to rethink what the film was," Liu explained. "What gives me the right to go there? And I think interviewing my mom [about abuse in their household] was an attempt to do that and it ended up working."
Rockford, a classic rust belt town, is a character in the film. The paucity of opportunities there plays into abuse scenarios, but should not be used to excuse or explain them away, the director believes.
"Violence in the home isn't particular to Rockford, but certainly socio-economic situations are a factor in causing it and perpetuating it," Liu stated. "I think it's more normalized maybe. There's less resources for survivors to know where to go or know what to do. There's less education around it. One of the main scripts of being a man is earning money and if you can't get a job in a place that doesn't have a lot of jobs, how do you do that? So it's very complex. But I wanted to make a representation of Rockford in a way that didn't pin the issues [in] these young men's lives just on the town."
Most importantly, Liu asserts that cycles of violence do not have to repeated down through the generations.
"I think that the point of the film is that they can be broken. certainly that there are huge ramifications for the cycle not being broken," Liu affirmed. "But it takes a lot of work and you see that work being done by Keire throughout the film. He puts himself in really vulnerable places and he confronts really hurtful things that are complex and that no one is really giving him a guide for but he tries to figure it out anyway.
Liu adds, "To use myself as an example like me confronting my mom and having this long conversation -- and having to revisit that conversation over and over in crafting that scene and fitting it in the film -- that wasn't easy. So I think we should respect and honor the work that it takes to break that cycle as well."
Keire is now living in Denver and earning a living.
"He's working at an upscale salad shop," Liu shared. "The last time I was there I went and got a salad from him and his chopping skills -- he can take a head of lettuce and just like cut it up like you can't believe."
Johnson's landed a modest endorsement deal through his skateboarding skills.
"He gets shoes from Converse. No paychecks," Liu noted. "But, again. it's like what do we value in society? Football players make millions of dollars and skateboarders like put in so much work and it's so hard and then they get a couple of pairs of shoes a month."
Zack Mulligan is working as a roofer, but exposure through Minding the Gap has led to a new opportunity.
"Someone saw the film. They fell in love with his charisma, like many people do, and they wanted to cast him for a fiction film," Liu related. "The director drove out to Rockford, did a script read with him... He got the part. It's a SAG movie. He drew a lot from dark parts of his life to do that character and then he said, 'It feels good to express emotions within the confines of this character.' So weirdly he's found this therapy that pays him."
As for Liu, his documentary has become one of the best reviewed of the year. He also contributed as a segment director on the new Starz docuseries America to Me, about life at racially-mixed Oak Park and River Forest High School in suburban Chicago. And he's at work on two more films, one fiction, one nonfiction.
The documentary is "about the way that we access memory, in a personal and sort of communal sense as it pertains to young men who experience gun violence in Chicago," he explained. "And then my fiction project is about how intimacy is formed as we come of age and how difficult it is to access in this day and age. So a lot of thematically similar themes I'm interested in."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.