'Minding the Gap' Director on Tackling Domestic Violence: "It's Such a Hurdle to Validate Abuse"

Minding The Gap Still 1 -Keire Johnson, Bing Liu and  Zack Mulligan - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Hulu

Bing Liu delved into the skateboarding scene — and raised some taboo topics among its participants — for his acclaimed documentary feature.

In Minding the Gap, director Bing Liu and his friends skateboard around Rockford, Illinois, failing and nailing ambitious stunts with a youthful fearlessness as the filmmaker pieces together tales of racial identity, class and domestic abuse. To pull off this intimate documentary (which premiered in January at Sundance and is streaming on Hulu), Liu relied on his cast, including his own mother and the on-again, off-again girlfriend of one of his skateboarding pals, to reflect on their deepest traumas in front of his lens. The film, which was shot over 12 years, has earned more than two dozen honors since its debut, including Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking. It was named to the National Board of Review’s top docs list and nominated for best doc at the Gotham Awards.

THR spoke with Liu, 29, who recently worked as a segment director and cinematographer on the Starz docuseries America to Me, about how he was able to encourage members of the skateboarding community to share candid conversations about sensitive topics.

How did being a part of the skateboarding culture color the way you made this movie?

A documentary is all about access and casting, and I just knew I had an in within the [skateboarding] community. There is a lot of skate media made by people not within the community — it’s either a competition narrative or a famous skateboarder. There wasn’t that much media about the everyday skateboarder.

How were you able to get the subjects to open up about domestic violence and other heavy topics?

They gave a lot of themselves and were really vulnerable, but, at the end of the day, no one had asked them these questions. There’s this stigma around even asking questions like, “How do you feel? What makes you feel angry? What makes you feel fear?” [They] seem like surface [questions] and, maybe because of our culture, seem taboo and scary, but in reality that’s exactly what they want to talk about. Over time they just really appreciated having an outlet.

How did domestic violence become one of the unifying themes in the film?

Before I started tracking Zack as a main character, [domestic abuse] was a common theme that we’d talk about as a larger cast, but I personally didn’t know that Zack and [his girlfriend] Nina would experience abuse. I guess when Nina first told me, I believed her right away because I’d known intimately from my own experience how a man could be one way outside the household and then totally different inside. I think my issue at that point was, well, other people aren’t going to believe her. And furthermore, how do I dig into this ethically? I needed her help to do that.

Why did you decide to include Keire Johnson’s journey to understanding his racial identity?

One of the reasons I chose Keire was because he was the only black skateboarder in this group of white friends, and I thought that was really interesting. During the process of filming, I realized I saw myself in the story not only through the lens of how our households were but also the process of finding your racial identity, accepting it, really making sense of it for yourself and seeing that it matters.

With documentaries, quite a lot gets left on the cutting-room floor. What did you have to cut?

At one point we had made Zack’s story more political. Around [the] 2016 [presidential election], he was favoring Trump. He didn’t vote, but it was like he was regurgitating all of these things that you hear on Fox News. I thought, “We can work backward from this to tell the story of how he came to feel this way.” Ultimately, this story was too evergreen to include that. It would’ve taken away and polarized it too much.

What has been the most rewarding part about the film’s successful release for you?

There’s a lot of validation — and not just as a filmmaker but [in] our stories. It’s just crazy how difficult it is to validate your own story. We see that going on now with what we saw with [Brett] Kavanaugh’s hearings. It’s such a hurdle to validate abuse and trauma, especially when no one talks about it [and] there’s a power structure [in place]. It feels good to have people really respond to my story, to my mom’s story, to Keire, and to Zack and Nina’s stories.

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.