The Butterfly Effect: A metamorphosis on manhood, movies and “Minding the Gap”
An interview with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Bing Liu
June 10, 2019
Fifteen years ago, 2004. Rockford, Illinois. A tall, lanky Asian boy, all limbs and joints, dark hair down past his ears, stands in front of the camera. The scene around him is warped outwards in its fish-eyed lens, almost as if the world is exploding out of him, fracturing around him. Yet he is all smiles, his braces-decked teeth filling up the screen as the opening sequence for “Minding the Gap” plays out.
It’s the same face you will see 15 years later, hair cut shorter, braces gone, hands folded nervously in his lap as he speaks to Trevor Noah on the Daily Show following his Oscar nomination.
This is Bing Liu, Sundance-winning and Oscar-nominated documentarian. In 2017, Liu’s debut documentary, “Minding the Gap,” swept out of indie film scene to capture the hearts of critics and audiences alike.
From the beginning, it was an Oscar contender: a sensitive yet striking film that goes beyond the crass stereotypes of smack-talking skateboarders into a profoundly nuanced look at the problems that plague our modern society. Racially intuitive and visually stunning, it had all the elements of a pertinent Oscar winner. The film sprang onto the Oscar award stage along with five other films for the title of ‘Best Documentary Feature’ but ultimately lost to Jimmy Chin’s and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Free Solo”, which chronicles rock climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to conquer the first free solo climb of the famed 900-meter vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan.
Twelve years in the making, Liu’s debut documentary feature “Minding the Gap” follows the lives of 17-year-old Keire Johnson and 23-year-old Zack Mulligan, two people with whom Liu shares the background of finding an escape from a turbulent home life through skateboarding.
“Minding the Gap”, however, is not simply a movie about skateboarding. In one of the most creatively poignant films of the year, Liu explores cycles of abuse, intertwining the narratives of Keire, Zack and himself to form a portrait of young American life.
“Family, identity, emotion,” Liu said in an interview with Harker Aquila. “The meaning of life.”
The film has come to represent a modern America, and Bing Liu the promising young directorial dark horse of the indie scene. But before all that, he was a quiet boy in a Rust Belt town who loved skateboarding more than the world.
Liu grew up in Rockford, Illinois, a Rust Belt town, which refers to the part of northeastern America where heavy steel production industries once existed. Rockford, a sprawling cityscape that lies 90 minutes outside of Chicago, is Illinois’ third largest city, and it is now home to a host of economic problems such as unemployment and decreasing population, according to the Rockford Register Star.
“The film is timely for a number of reasons: it’s a reminder of the power of documentary film to shine light on important topics,” English teacher Brigid Miller, who is an avid fan of documentaries and was recommended the film through a colleague said. “While we hear that ‘the economy is good’ or even booming, towns like Rockford and Erie, Pennsylvania, where I’m from, have been largely abandoned as manufacturing jobs have been outsourced. People in towns like these were prime targets for the nationalist rhetoric that became so pronounced throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, and this film reminds us of the vulnerability and desperation that fills these places.”
Towns like Rockford had been deserted by the American economy due to outsourcing, while countries like China, Canada and Mexico are on the receiving end of America’s big business. Rockford’s industry began in the early 20th century, at one point becoming the second largest furniture manufacturing hub in America. In the Sept. 12, 1949, issue of Life Magazine, post-war Rockford was described as “nearly typical of the US as any city can be.” It has now become one of many towns forgotten by its own country.
It’s a town that has, unintentionally, abandoned its youth, a place where crimes disappear into the night, where skateboarders thrive around the quiet corners of the city, safe from the hawkish eyes of their elders. Liu especially, as one of the few Asian American youths in the city, took to this hidden part of teenage life in Rockford.
“You’d come in to the skate shop, and we’d talk about random stuff…and that happened with a lot of kids…and they’d come in and unload, you know? But you were introverted,” Eric Neubaur, the owner of Groundfloor Skateshop in Rockford, says of Liu in the film. “I knew you had some huge weight on you.”
A film that highlights toxic masculinity, class divide, domestic abuse and the nature of growing up in a racially divided America today, “Minding the Gap” is a directorial debut that critics deemed worthy of the Oscar for which it was nominated, if not for Liu’s unique filmmaking style then for the intense, relevant commentary it brought to the table.
“I wanted to explore the theme that the film deals with: race, class, domestic violence and all,” Liu said. “I wanted to give the 14-year-old version of myself something to look at, you know, growing up with abuse in the household.”
Bing’s mother, Mengyue, emigrated to the U.S. from China when he was five. Growing up in Rockford, Liu’s existence symbolizes the crossroads where the themes of his film meet, and where the American divide begins: class, race and moral grounding.
Rockford is a particularly difficult place to find opportunity, much less for filmmaking.
“I think sometimes people, when they hear ‘Rust Belt,’ they think that people didn’t work hard,” Director of Journalism Ellen Austin, who grew up in Rockford, said. “What happened was that America moved its manufacturing to South Korea, China, and those jobs went away from America and never came back. People leave when there’s no opportunity, and I was one of those [people]. I left.”
But the economics weren’t the only challenging part of Rockford. Class is one problem. Race is the other. After moving to the Bay Area, Austin reflects on the disparity between the affluence and cultural fluency of the Bay Area and of the Midwest.
“It had a huge racial divide,” Austin said of the city. “Rockford is pretty much white and black and Hispanic, and those sectors are really geographically divided, and while there are some Asian families in Rockford there weren’t many. So Rockford was a challenging place to grow up. You can have a 36 on your ACT or a 1500 on SAT and still not be able to go to college.”
Despite the drain of economic opportunity, Liu’s mother made a living working at a pizza restaurant. Shortly after their arrival, Liu’s mother married and had another child with an abusive man. Skateboarding became Bing’s only escape from the abuse.
“I found myself in a group of outcasts much happier in the streets than at home,” Liu wrote in his artist’s statement for “Minding the Gap”. “We spent countless hours together, making our own version of family and, through skate videos, our own version of reality.”
He got his first camera at 14, a Sony handycam, which he used to film that very escape. Montages, skate videos, Liu filmed it all. He would use some of that footage later in “Minding the Gap”.
“Why are you filming everything?” one of Bing’s friends, while skateboarding, asks in one of the clips included in the film. “Because I want to make a montage,” he replies. And thus began his film career.
“I learned how to edit [and] shoot through the online film community,” Liu said. “I bought a photography book, learned camera relationships that way, and then I learned professional cameras working in Hollywood movies.”
Despite starting film at such a young age, Liu never considered himself a “film watcher.”
“I was never a film watcher,” Liu said. “I mean, I watched Hitchcock films and I watched a few films that resonated with me when I was a teen, [but] I spent more time I think making things than I did watching.”
When he was 17, Liu made his first short, a film about Vietnamese immigrants. Many of his films were art videos, video journals, and many emulated some of those early influences such as Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” and the 2006 Best Picture winning “Crash”. From there, he entered and won in a few local film festivals.
In April of 2006, at age 19, Liu attended Rock Valley Community College and met Thomas Ciciura, a cameraman looking for opportunities in Rockford public television, who would go on to become his mentor in a sense.
“He got the attention to detail part right away,” Ciciura said. “And that’s a really important thing about our business is just a real attention to detail, and he understood that. That’s actually one of the hardest things to teach somebody, I don’t know that I’ve ever taught anybody that [and] he got that, and then he was he was available. The film schedule is very demanding. It’s a lot of hours, long days , and whenever I called him and asked him if he could help, he was always available and willing to do it.”
He decided to begin freelancing as a filmmaker in addition to attending school and working in the photo department at Target. However, at 20, he moved to Chicago to major in English Literature at the University of Illinois, where he took some video production courses but primarily sought to become a high school English teacher.
“I wanted to write,” Liu said. “I think that was more the dream I had as an adolescent, as a teenager, I was like, ‘I want to be a novelist,’ partially because being a filmmaker seemed like a pipe dream.”
At 22, Liu decided to quit his job to pursue filmmaking full time. As a young filmmaker, Bing had the kind of tenacity that could make or break a business. Passionate, green and for whatever reason, always available, Liu made the perfect candidate for an intern on a film set. His attitude for one is what first drew Ciciura to him.
“He was just willing to do whatever it takes,” Ciciura said. “‘What do we got to do?’ That’s kind of the gang of filmmakers we ran with at that time. That was the common thread, like, it’s hard work: let’s get it done.”
Liu and Ciciura began their own production company in Rockford, filming small commercials for local mom-and-pop stores, for example, a local bank, a local lawyer, and a local flooring store. Rockford was not a part of the Chicago television market, and as a result was very small. It’s one of the reasons Ciciura moved from Chicago to Rockford in the first place.
“The television commercials that are on the air here are terrible,” Ciciura said. “Like in general, the production quality is super duper bad, because basically, the TV networks will come out and shoot your commercial for free to get you to buy advertising time.” How it worked was the people on site, news crew, anchors with no experience with production, sound, or lighting, were forced to shoot commercials for these people for free in order to increase ad sales for the TV stations. “However, we were able to convince a few clients out there that just like step it up a notch and you know, ‘Try us, we’re going to make it good, and we’re going to, you know, deliver.'”
And deliver they did. Customers saw results: sales spiked for the businesses, and word of their small production company spread around Rockford. Ciciura and Liu made a powerhouse tag team, producing, editing, directing and casting these commercials all the way up to the lighting, sound and camera work.
Ciciura describes their approach as story-driven, something that made them stand out among other public commercial producers in Rockford and something that would later go on to aid in Liu’s making of “Minding the Gap.”
“We always approach the commercial from the story point of view,” Ciciura said. “We knew we had to sell things, but we wanted to make sure, in 30 seconds, that we were able to deliver a story that makes sense.”
Throughout his career, Liu has worked as a camera operator, loader, and key grip for shows like “Shameless”, “The Mob Doctor”, “Sense8” and “Chicago PD”, and movies such as “Divergent”, “Jupiter Ascending” and “All the Queen’s Horses”. His first directing job was in 2015 for American cable network Starz’s “America To Me”, a ten-part documentary series exploring race and class issues in American education. Shortly after that, “Minding the Gap” began forming in his mind. That’s where Kartemquin, his film’s production company, came in.
“There was a fellowship offer for different voices in documentary, for filmmakers of color, and a friend of mine I went to dinner with was doing some outreach work, and she told me about it so I applied,” Liu said.
It was at Kartemquin, a center for collaborative documentary filmmakers, that he was introduced to the verite filmmaking style, which emphasizes realism and naturalism, of the company’s claim to fame: the films “Hoop Dreams” and “Stevie”.
“Minding the Gap” began with a simple observation: he and his friends all shared tumultuous relationships with their fathers. As Liu began to investigate this phenomenon, interviewing skateboarders across America, he found his story closer to home than he’d expected, in Keire and, later, Zack. He received funding for the film from PBS in 2015.
His story began with Keire, who he knew immediately had the potential for the story.
It was later that he found out that Zack, one of his childhood friends, was about to become a father. Zack was 23-years-old at the time and living with his girlfriend, Nina.
“I don’t think Zack would ever just, like, strike a woman, I don’t think he would do that,” Keire said in the movie, after Bing asks him if he thinks Zack is capable of hitting a woman.
Liu faced a particular dilemma during the filming of “Minding the Gap”, when Zack’s girlfriend, Nina, revealed that he had physically abused her. He had come to a point when he had to differentiate between friend and filmmaker.
“The unique thing was just figuring out how to move forward in an ethical way when Nina revealed to me what was going on, that Zack had hit her,” Liu said.
This, however, influenced Liu’s decision to include his own story of abuse for perspective and to “answer any ethical questions the audience might have.” Doubt is a part of the process for Liu.
“I didn’t feel like the film was going to go anywhere,” Liu said. “All the films I’ve made, I’ve made them for me. I wasn’t getting much validation outside of, you know, feeling like the film was resonating with people. I think it’s very important to how I did it.”
Ciciura comments on the unconventional challenges they ran into during the making of the film.
“I think the story was the biggest challenge for him, trying to figure out the compelling parts of what he had, or how to how to take the film, the footage and the video assets he had and how to turn that into a story, and obviously, he nailed it,” Ciciura said. “But I know he worked really hard at that. I know that that took, you know, two years to basically get it into the story that we’ve all seen. I don’t know if it came out of him somehow; it wasn’t really there in the beginning, he worked at it.”
The influence of “Minding the Gap” goes far beyond the issues it brings to the forefront of the audience’s minds. Liu has used his film to aide many outreach programs: the Rockford IceHogs hockey team hosted a screening of the movie on April 14 this year, which benefited “Remedies Renewing Lives,” a local charity providing services for domestic violence and substance abuse in Boone and Winnebago Counties.
“Bing has been tremendous,” Rockford mayor Tom McNamara, who spoke at the screening, wrote of Liu’s philanthropy in an email interview with Harker Aquila. “I hope it continues to resonate with viewers and helps citizens truly appreciate the magnitude of domestic violence and how it is 41 percent of all of our violent crime and in 2018 accounted for 23 percent of all our homicides.”
McNamara represents the fresh perspective that Rockford needs to tackle the issues of its young population. Rockford’s youngest mayor, McNamara, having grown up with the issues of a tumultuous Rockford, has created many initiatives to address the very subjects the film tackles, such as crime, domestic violence, economic disparity and education. His campaign promises say as much, as he looks to bring people back to the city and create more opportunity in Rockford. When asked what he would say to Bing, McNamara produces a simple yet powerful answer.
“I would simply say thank you,” McNamara wrote. “Continue to make meaningful films that shed light on real life issues as, again, these films have an unbelievable ability to resonate with viewers.”
At the heart of Liu’s film lies his visually stunning skateboarding scenes that began the film in the first place, an attention to detail for the people and issues of Rockford that reveal a sort of love for it. Though not originally being about him, the film is glued together by his confrontation of his own trauma. A poetic scene at the end of the movie depicts Liu filming into a mirror: and that’s precisely what this film does for him. In highlighting the issues of his friends, he also highlighted the issues of his hometown, and in turn, the issues he struggled with as a child as well.
“His piece isn’t really about the city of Rockford. He’s talking about the men he grew up with in a town that had struggles and that could be a lot of places in America, and he’s talking about how you try to find positivity and hope,” Austin said. “He found it by saying I’m putting my pin on the horizon and I’m heading for the horizon. That’s how I’m going to save myself.”
At the end of the day, “Minding the Gap” is about family, whether born into or chosen, whether still with you or not. The film isn’t about skateboarding: it’s about everything Liu had in common with his friends. Most of all, filmmaking was healing for Liu, his modern-day skateboarding.
“In the past, it was just something that I liked to do, and now, sometimes it feels like a job, but most of the time it feels like getting paid to try to get at the meaning of things,” Liu said.
For Keire, it was just like talking to an old friend.
“It was just like having a normal conversation with your friend except you just kind of forget that the cameras are rolling,” Johnson said.
In the same way that he found a family in skateboarding, Liu has found a family in filmmaking.
“I think [we] kind of have this father-son relationship,” Ciciura said. “And I think we all know, like, he just had to go and spread his wings, so although we keep in contact, whenever we do talk to each other, it’s like we just we just picked up right where we left off.”
Through filmmaking, Liu has learned to heal his own family as well. He and his half-brother walked their mother down the aisle when she remarried. He has friends and fans all over the world, and even still visits and checks in with the subjects of his film. In a way, this has been healing for them, too. “Yo, this is like free therapy,” Johnson says in the film.
Liu in and of himself has almost become a father figure for the youth of Rockford. Fans of the film have dubbed him the proverbial “father” to a young Keire throughout the film. Keire, who is 23 now, reflects on Liu’s influence in his life in an interview with the Winged Post.
“A lot of the subjects I hadn’t really had the time or space to talk about, it kind of brought that to the surface, and it kind of helped me work through it by just talking about it,” Johnson said.
Even more than that, “Minding the Gap” is evidence of the power of storytelling against all odds.
The mentality is summed up beautifully by a quote from Zack Mulligan, one of the main characters in the film, said in reference to Liu during the film: “Some people do take their negative experiences and turn them into powerful, positive things.”
“I believe in dreams as a teacher,” Austin said. “That’s the business I’m in. I’m not in the business of teaching, I’m in the business of dreams, and when I see someone like [Liu] who has realized a dream and is continuing forward with it, who is also so generous of heart, it makes me feel like there really is so much that’s possible in the world and there is good work to do, and it makes me proud to say that we came from the same place.”
Making things for yourself: something Liu emphasized about his filmmaking, the source of his inspiration. The critics weren’t unanimously in favor of this dark horse during awards season; that much is for sure. Maybe it was that, like the rest of America, they dismissed a movie addressing middle America, or that, just like people would get mad at the kids skateboarding outside their shops, as Liu described in his interview, the metaphor of skateboarding was lost on them. If anything, “Minding the Gap” is living proof that the personal is the political: that the one story you have in yourself, you tell it even if no one else is going to like it. Maybe someone has the same one as you.
“Be honest. Tell your story,” Johnson said. “Ask your friends the hard questions, and just make sure your friends are doing good, because you never know what someone’s going through, because you never asked.” It’s followed by a small chuckle. “It’s okay to cry, I guess.”
The product of making films for no one but himself led Liu to a worldwide stage where he could enact change in whichever way he wanted, and it will continue to yield incredible results, if not for the world, then for himself at the very least.
“I think I saw his calling come out, you know, I think he attached to it very quickly, because he enjoyed it, and he was able to be taught because he was inquisitive,” Ciciura said. “We often talked more philosophically than we did technically, to be honest. You know, I think I remember, like going off, when I said, ‘You know, I don’t care if you’re mopping the floor, or building a cabinet, or, you know, just doing your laundry. Do it the best you can all the time, because that represents who you are. Whatever task is in front of you just do it all the way the best you can. Why do anything half-assed, you know what I mean?’ I remember just him going, ‘Yeah, I get that. That makes a lot of sense.'”
Liu’s candor and his honest approach to filmmaking is what touts him as one of this year’s most promising young filmmakers, and deservedly so.
“Don’t worry about getting jobs in the industry or whatever,” Liu said. “Just make your stuff and just don’t try to pretend like you’re not yourself. Just be who you are.”
Miller speaks highly of the film after watching it, and encourages people to watch for its cultural significance, if not for its groundbreaking filmmaking.
“I can’t recommend the film highly enough,” Miller said. “I’ve been telling everyone I know to see this film. It’s jaw-droppingly good.”
Since the end of “Minding the Gap”, downtown Rockford has opened its first ever public skate park, Johnson has moved to Denver to pursue music and has since become sponsored by Emage Skateshop in Denver, and Liu, well, he’s doing what he does best: telling stories. Liu is currently working on two projects, one in post production on young men affected by gun violence in Chicago. “Minding the Gap” has been recently nominated for a 2019 Peabody award in the American Documentary category.
You can stream “Minding the Gap” now on Hulu.