Often times what brings us together isn’t what keeps us together. At the root of every lasting relationship and friendship that we’ve created is something much deeper keeping us connected. Sometimes they are pleasant, but oftentimes they are much darker. Bing Liu noticed some similarities between himself and the residents of Rockford, IL., his childhood home. In Hulu’s latest documentary, Minding the Gap, Liu examines his adolescence along with two other residents who are all part of the same skateboarding community in that city. We got a chance to talk with Liu about the symbolism of skateboarding in that community, respecting the subjects of the film, the similarities with Eighth Grade, and more.
Minding the Gap is such a beautifully nuanced look at adolescence that follows the characters well into adulthood. When you started the documentary, did you already know what you wanted the story to be about?
Bing Liu: Yeah, I wanted it to be about growing up and fatherhood relations. I was casting around the country and it wasn’t until about a year in that I met Kiere for the first time. I followed his story and started following Zach shortly after. In the final year, I reverse engineered it and found some archival footage for it.
Skateboarding played a major role in the film. The scenes with it have a peaceful, almost serene quality to them. Was it used more as an escapist activity?
BL: Absolutely. I feel like that idea has been so overused, but I feel like the more interesting part is what happens when you start growing up. Can skateboarding help you get a GED, become a father, or even grapple with an abusive father? Not so much. It is kind of escapist but it’s more like an instrument. It’s more like a saxophone than a baseball bat. It’s only going to help you as much as you help yourself.
Skateboarding was obviously the catalyst of the friendship, but there was something deeper that united all of you, like a shared pain. Did you realize that early on?
BL: My first sit-down with Kiere was the one where we talked about his abusive father and we commiserate about crying. My first shoot with Zack was him by the pool telling me he was going to be a father. My second conversation with him was at the hospital as Nina was being induced for labor. That’s sort of the foundations to give you an idea. All of the skating sort of happened along the way.
Rockford, IL. is representative of many Rust Belt cities that America forgot. These cities are the kinds that Trump personally said he was going to revitalize. Have you noticed any changes in Rockford since his presidency began?
BL: I have actually. The downtown was pretty barren when I was growing up there and filming. Now, there’s a resurgence about taking back downtown for many Rust Belt cities. It’s really become more of a thing. I don’t think I would necessarily ascribe it to Trump, but I think Trump plays a factor in a lot of these cities. We actually had a storyline where Zack became someone who supported Trump. We had to cut that out of the film because I wanted the film to be evergreen and that would just taint it. I’ve had people on both sides of the aisle really respond to this because it’s more about a universal, emotional, repression journey.
Especially the journey from boyhood to adulthood.
BL: There’s that montage near the end with these quick-cuts of us growing up that I called the “boyz 2 men” montage. That was the card that was on the white board.
What do you think cities like Rockford would benefit the most from?
BL: Respect. Growing up there, there was this down attitude about it. The nickname was Rock Bottom. Forbes magazine called it the most miserable city to live in 2013. It’s not a shithole. There’s a gritty pride there. There are people that are happy living there and raising their families.
How hard was it to toe the line between documentarian and friend?
BL: I didn’t really become friends with them until I did the film. They knew who I was because I made skate videos. Zack and I had made some videos before I moved to Chicago, but I didn’t really know them until I made the film. In terms of them giving me access and vulnerability, that was a long 5-6 year conversation. I checked in with them along the way.
Did you ever confront Zack about the whole domestic abuse issue?
BL: Not explicitly.
Just what we saw in the documentary?
BL: There were a couple of other times, but my solution to respecting Nina’s wishes was to look more into that recording.
Have they gotten to see the documentary as a whole?
BL: We told them early on that we would show them the film before we finished the final product. I’m surprised many filmmakers don’t do that, especially in stories like this where filmmakers have all of the power. Just out of an ethical standpoint. You’ve asked for so much from their lives for many years that this is a way to give them some of their power back. It’s not like we’re going to let them change things. It’s just a chance to say, “Yeah, this is accurate,” and that was their general reaction.
What is the biggest thing that you learned from this experience?
BL: Mainly that emotions need to be respected. That’s why I think that the movie Eighth Grade is powerful because it is simply respecting this eighth grade girl’s emotions. We don’t even realize how much we brush them off until we watch that movie.
The way most adults tend to invalidate them.
BL: Exactly. That’s what’s happening in Minding the Gap. We’re just not invalidating these emotions that are just typically brushed off in a way that we don’t even realize because they are so ingrained in us.
What sort of projects should we expect in the future?
BL: I’m currently working on a project about the way we access memory both personally and communally as it pertains to young men who experience gun violence in Chicago.
How has the reception been from these communities, letting an outsider in to tell their stories?
BL: We lean heavily on the elders that work with the young men. I’ve gotten to a point now where I’m texting personally with them and making different plans. It’s a slow-burn because I’m an outsider. I constantly ask them on camera how they think filming is going. It’s all about transparency. I’m an immigrant and there is a huge history of inequality of how African-Americans were brought to this country and treated systemically. We all have our own diasporas, and we own that and come together because of it.