Minding the Gap started as a series of interviews on a road trip and snowballed into a confrontational saga of everything I couldn’t make sense of as a child.
I was 8 years old when my single mother took a job in Rockford, Illinois, a crumbling factory city two hours west of Chicago. She remarried a physically and mentally abusive man, had a child with him and then remained with him for 17 years. Because of his explosive, often unpredictable violence, I perceived the world as lacking causality: you could do the right thing or the wrong thing, but either way things might not go well for you. After I started skateboarding at age 13, through many bruises, broken bones and hard-earned tricks, I gradually regained a sense of control over my pain. Most importantly, I found myself much happier with a group of outcasts in the streets than at home. We spent countless hours together, making our own version of a family.
In my late teens and early twenties, I was struck by loss. I’d permanently escaped my home to move to Chicago, and I wanted to know why so many of my peers were falling prey to drug addictions, jail sentences or worse. I was still filming skate videos for fun—driving solo around the country and couch-surfing with other skateboarding friends I’d met over the years. Eventually I began interviewing skateboarders: What does skateboarding feel like? Who do you love more, your mom or your dad? Who taught you the feeling of hate? These conversations often turned into impromptu therapy sessions, intimate spaces for catharsis and realizations.
I discovered a pattern of absent, distant and abusive father-figures—something that affected mental health, relationships and parenting styles. A little more than one year into the project, I returned to Rockford, where I sat with a charming, goofy 16-year-old named Keire in his mother’s attic and asked him about his father. He’d never talked about their relationship before and was fidgeting with the sleeves of his sweater. When he told me about his abusive father, I felt my chest tighten with anxiety. “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.
For the next four years, I returned to Rockford to continue following Keire, as well as the ad-hoc leader of the Rockford skateboarding community, a charismatic 23-year-old named Zack who was about to become a father himself. After partnering with Kartemquin Films, I wanted to explore the connected themes of skateboarding and violence in the home through a character-driven approach. I took on a more cinema vérité style, drawing inspiration from the films that resonated with me in my adolescence: Gummo, Waking Life, Kids, Slacker—stories that captivated me with their representations of growing up in a chaotic, uncertain world. I could relate to them, and through them I could also find hope.
As I began assembling rough cuts and holding feedback screenings, people were surprised at how close I was to the themes and community of the film. With their encouragement, I began participating in the film more. À la Sherman’s March, the cameraperson was cast as a character. But then everything changed when (spoiler alert) the mother of Zack’s child told me Zack had been battering her. The heart of the film, which had been exploring how skateboarders deal with masculinity and child abuse, suddenly became much more murky with immediate and personal ramifications; I was forced to become an active participant in the story, eventually interviewing my estranged mother and half-brother about my stepfather and revisiting old footage to find a way to tell my own story.
People are often surprised that I didn’t know Keire and only briefly knew Zack growing up but that we were still able to have candid and vulnerable moments with each other when I came back to Rockford. In the course of making the film, I realized that Zack, Keire and I were all harboring toxic experiences buried under the weight of years of societal and personal repression, and we all chose our own ways of dealing with that pressure. The film has given me a sense of clarity about myself and shown me that, while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, some ways of coping aren’t sustainable.
What’s clear from doing this project is that violence and its sprawling web of effects are perpetuated in large part because these issues remain behind closed doors, both literally and figuratively. My hope is that the characters who open doors in Minding the Gap will inspire young people struggling with something similar—inspire them to see that they can survive their situations, live to tell their stories and create lives of causality for themselves.
— Bing Liu, Director