“The calling of art is to extract us from our daily reality, to bring us to a hidden truth that’s difficult to access—to a level that’s not material but spiritual.”
“The thing about filming is people say things to the camera they wouldn’t say to your face.”
The early minutes of Bing Liu’s gripping documentary Minding the Gap evoke the unearthing of a time capsule. Having filmed his group of friends over several years, he has access to an incredible archive of skateboarding stunts and youthful shenanigans, a treasure trove of former selves—both more joyful and more troubled than remembered—excavated from the cavernous depths of time and circumstance. From the jump, Bing held a skateboard in one hand and a video camera in the other, explaining to his good-natured pals, “I want to make a montage.” And so, Minding the Gap opens with found footage of wipeouts and perfect landings that, according to subject Keire Johnson (just 11 years old when he and Bing first met), “make it seem like the best time ever.”
Minding the Gap minds the lives of Keire, Zack Mulligan, and Bing himself from adolescence to young adulthood. Even before the friends-cum-film subjects explicitly tell their audience, favoring candid conversations over traditional talking heads, we see how a group of boys became family, how they looked out for one another when nobody else did, how they razzed and raged, exchanging high fives and helping hands. In their highlight reels, the boys aim not only to replicate tricks but to innovate, seeking out new spots—often spots where they shouldn’t be (several “No Trespassing” signs go ignored)—and landing new tricks. But real life is rarely montage. This was hardly the best time ever, and the echoes of awe-struck laughter belie darker forces at play.
That skateboarding brings them together is more than mere coincidence, for skaters are outsiders by nature (or perhaps, in this case, nurture), and as we soon learn, so are these young men. Navigating the rundown streets of landlocked Rockford, Illinois, these sidewalk surfers embody a sport that is as dangerous as it is graceful, and they have been hurt many times before. Broken boards allude to scars we cannot see, though it’s not skating that causes irreparable harm. Quite the opposite, according to the antidote scribbled across Keire’s cracked deck: THIS DEVICE CURES HEARTACHE. Skating is the lens through which they uncover and process personal traumas, and the means by which they have come to escape it. Skateboarding is salvation, healing that which the world has broken, or worse yet, abandoned entirely. More than a mere leisurely device, skateboards encompasses a portion of someone’s being, and many teenagers and adult alike would passionately search for the best skateboards online like those found on https://scooteradviser.com.
Zack was raised in a conservative, controlling household where patriarchal rules and expectations incited juvenile rebellion. At 16, he moved out on his own. Now working as a roofer and studying for his GED, Zack has a quarrelsome relationship with his girlfriend, Nina, and a baby boy on the way. He is beguiling and funny, using humor as a justification for saying and doing sometimes hurtful, hateful things. He’s remarkably self-aware, though not always truthful, and tries really hard to seem like he’s hardly trying. For him, skateboarding is a contradictory combination of freedom and control, a reaction to his tumultuous upbringing: “You fucking have to control the most minute, small details to make you feel normal in a world that’s not normal.”
Growing up, Keire didn’t fit in with his family, either. They didn’t understand him or his yearning to skate. Keire’s dad unexpectedly passed away when he was 11 or 12, around the time he started skating with Zack and Bing, and he now lives with his mom, keeping his messy bedroom locked from her latest shitty boyfriend and his own thieving brother. He gets a restaurant job through another friend and industriously works his way up the ladder from dishwasher to server. He is animated, slightly awkward, and prematurely wistful. And while we never see him use any, Keire equates skating to doing drugs and chasing the high of suspended reality. When he skates, time slows, stops, ceases to exist, and the rest of the world—its anxieties and injustices—fades away. But that feeling never lasts. “As soon as the effect of the drug wears off, it just comes back to you.”
If skateboarding is the cure, then domestic violence, economic dislocation, systemic racism, and patriarchy are the diseases ravaging Rockford. Newscast voiceovers and billboard PSAs inform us of the city’s ongoing decline: manufacturing jobs moving out of town forcing the workforce to follow suit, skyrocketing unemployment numbers giving way to increased incidences of domestic violence. All three young men experienced physical abuse from their fathers and father figures, a fact they are coming to terms with now; the thing that drove each to skateboarding unites them once more. Minding the Gap alludes to the interconnectedness and expanding ripple effects of institutions and institutional failings without losing sight of the intimate, deeply personal stories at its center.
“What kind of filming are we doing? The kind where I pretend you’re not there, or the other kind?” wonders Zack with an impish grin. Relying on the ever-presence of Bing’s camera, the film breaks down artifice without feeling voyeuristic or exploitative of its central figures. Zack and Keire’s naturalistic ease in front of the camera is a product of it having always been there, having always been an organic part of their friendship. And despite an aversion to posers and inauthenticity, the skaters can’t help performing some aspect of themselves (identity, masculinity, toughness, indifference), be it for us or each other. The line between art and reality blurs, the unceasing performances begin to falter, and relief comes only because the audience occasionally changes. It makes Zack feel like a clown, but the show must go on. “You paint up your face and you put on your act for everybody,” he says. “And you let that act become you.”
Conceived as a reaction against traditional approaches, vérité cinema is a natural fit for Bing and his counterculture cohort. However, the challenge in presenting truth on film is that there is no direct line to it. The very choice of where to point the camera, and at whom, imposes a filmmaker’s vision, making a determination of who is allowed to tell stories and who gets theirs told. In an industry (and a country, and a world) where access and opportunity are hardly equitable, documentary can begin to bridge that gap. In this context, making space to tell these stories, judging this one as worthy of being told, feels like a revolutionary act.
Minding the Gap eschews traditional narrative arcs, touring wreckage of the past—a past that is still driving and informing the present—and redefining cinematic language as a means to an uncertain end. Some amount of time passes. Like it does. Keire receives a promotion and considers leaving Rockford before he’s stuck there forever. Zack and Nina try to make it work for their son; she wants to give him (and herself) the family she never had, so she makes certain concessions, but arguments and aggressions escalate. When Bing gently presses the subject, Nina discloses abuse in their relationship: “[Zack] broke his coffee tables with my body.” It’s at this point, confronting the familiarity of her experience, that Bing must expand the world of the film to include his own.
Formerly heard and rarely seen, Bing pulls back the curtain to show us the machinations and machinery. Lights, camera, action. His mom sits before him. “Can you see my face okay?” he asks. Necessarily contrived and devastatingly raw, he asks a couple questions he already knows the answers to, obtaining footage and context for us, his rapt audience. And then he asks others, far darker and more difficult, for what seems like the first time. Not knowing where the conversation will lead, he shows us how to have hard ones. Bing’s father wasn’t in the picture and his mom married a violent man who beat her, him, and his younger half-brother. She didn’t want to be alone, didn’t know how bad the abuse was, and she’s so sorry. She wishes she could do it over again, differently this time. But she can’t, and instead hopes this project can help him heal. He sinks back in his seat, nearly out of frame, hangs his head, and calls “cut.”
“I could tell with you from the very beginning, skateboarding meant more to you than just being cool and having friends,” a local skate shop owner tells Bing. “It was your thing to, like, get away. It was kind of a life or death thing.” Bing’s approach to filmmaking echoes that same desire and drive, and unlocking “cinematic truth” necessitates the insertion of himself and his family’s story into the narrative. As filmmaker and peer, an insider’s outsider, he is simultaneously producer and participant. His familiarity with the characters, along with personal resonance, is integral to this story, and Minding the Gap feels like one only he can tell. In bringing the innovative spirit of skateboarding to his filmmaking, and recognizing that he cannot be impartial, Bing makes his subjectivity an unexpected asset. And when he subverts natural observational tendencies and flips the camera on himself, he is not exempt from its truth-telling either.
Minding the Gap is disinterested in putting anyone on trial, least of all Bing’s friends and family. This work is not a judgment of them or their fathers. It’s not even really an indictment of the society that created, fostered, and hid such abuse and abuses of power. It’s a glimpse (the more personal, the more universal) at how our most trusted institutions most readily fail us, and how people become products of broader cultural failings as well as their specific environments. But, most importantly, it’s an impossibly humane move toward some version of restorative justice. By observing patterns, ordering chaos, and giving space and voice to experience, Minding the Gap redefines the past. Bing’s work restores relationships to rightness, giving back childhoods that were previously lost to time. As he did in conversation with his mom, he provides the framework for these men to speak about pain and trauma. Wounds need air to heal, and as Bing explains to Keire, “I’m making this film because I was physically disciplined by my stepfather and it didn’t make sense to me, and I saw myself in your own story.” Minding the gap between life as he imagines it and life as it is, Bing cannot give back what they’ve all lost—what was violently stolen from them—but he can and does show them a path forward.
The film functions much the same as those early skate videos, existing as a new kind of artifact, a reference document demonstrating who the boys were, where they’ve been, and evidence of how far they’ve come. Even Zack: “I don’t want my son, I just don’t want him to grow up, you know, fucked up like me…It just sucks knowing that you’re your own enemy, that every decision you ever made has culminated in how shitty your life is now. And there’s no escaping it.” The expectations he carries—as a father, a son, a man—sabotaged Zack’s relationships in the past; Bing does his friends and family justice in providing a blueprint for being better than the examples set for them. Minding the Gap is not a condemnation, nor is it an apology. Instead, the film changes how these men see the world and their place in it. And it shapes how they see their future, as well.
Keire looks back on his father’s strictness as protectiveness and guidance. Observing the casual racism and ignorance of his friends, he now understands that his father was teaching him about being Black in America: “I remembered something that my dad told me about being Black. He said that ‘being Black is cool because you get to prove people wrong every day.’” The last time he spoke to his father, they argued; the last time he visited his father’s grave was the funeral. The final sequence builds to an on-camera catharsis—a delayed reckoning—as Keire desperately searches for his father’s headstone. He’s overcome with emotion, relief giving way to grief. And then, he skates. With his life on the brink, straddling the space between childhood and adulthood, with the past receding and the future laid out ahead, the film wraps and the story plays on. For the first time, Keire has nothing to prove.