Editor's Note: This article contains content related to domestic violence
A white man scales a building, pulling himself up using pipes running along the walls as handholds and climbing up precarious stairs. A Black teenager watches from the ground. “That’s not how we do it in the hood,” the teenager exclaims, but he begins to make his way up as well. Shortly afterwards he says to the man behind the camera, “Bing, I think I’m gonna die.”
The men never make it to the top, but they do start skateboarding as soon as they get back to the ground. As they zip through the streets of Rockford, Illinois, rebounding off walls, jumping over fire hydrants and flipping their skateboards mid jump, the joy is apparent in their smiles and yells of satisfaction when they land a particularly hard trick.
Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art screened Minding the Gap, a documentary by Bing Liu, on Thursday Oct. 11. The film won the Sundance Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking, as well as 55 other awards from international and American film festivals.
At first glance, Minding the Gap is a documentary about skateboarding. Skateboarding montages are interspersed with cuts of the three men as they grow up, underscoring skateboarding’s importance to the men as an outlet for expression, freedom and escape from familial relationships broken by domestic violence.
Zack Mulligan. Keire Johnson. Bing Liu himself. They are white, Black and Asian-American respectively, and the film traces how the abuse they suffered as children and teenagers shapes their current lives as adults.
Each of the three men tells his story differently. When Keire recounts his father’s abuse, he does not deny the physical and emotional pain he endured, but he does display immense regret. He remembers the last thing he ever said to his father was, “I hate you.”
Towards the end of the film, Keire decides to visit his father’s tombstone on Father’s Day. Keire struggles to remember where the tombstone is, because he hasn’t been to the graveyard since his father’s funeral. When he finally finds it, he collapses with relief. He cleans the tombstone and sits in front of it. He cries. Finally, he says to Bing (who is behind the camera), “Let’s go.”
Conversely, Zack nonchalantly states that he endured physical abuse as a child, but that every child gets an “ass whooping” once in a while. As much as Zack wants to believe that his father’s abuse and rigid expectations did not affect him, his chaotic lifestyle suggests otherwise.
He rails against the “system” and the formulaic way that children typically grow up: going to college, getting a stable job, marrying, and then having children. Zack does not go to college. He gets a job as a roofer. He has a son with his girlfriend Nina. He drinks and smokes with his roommates constantly. Both Zack and Nina complain that the other is not “pulling their weight” in parenting.
Liu films their verbal arguments, but it is Nina who reveals in an interview that Zack beats her, pointing to a scar on her eyebrow. When Liu asks Zack if he hits Nina, he says that you should never hit a woman, but if she is “coming at me like a man,” then he’ll treat her like one. “Some bitches need to get slapped,” he says.
Bing falls somewhere between Zack and Keire. He never talks about his abuse himself; instead, he reveals it through interviews with his half-brother Kent and his mother Meng Yue. Kent recalls the sound of “unnerving screaming” from when Bing’s step-father, Dennis, beat Bing. Meng Yue cries when she says she wishes she had the strength to leave Dennis earlier (it took her seventeen years). “I don’t know what to say,” she repeats. Her words cannot erase the pain that continues to torment Bing to this day.
After the screening ended, Bing joined RTVF associate professor Kyle Henry to answer some questions. Prof. Henry began by stating that this was the second time he watched the documentary, and he cried just as much as he did the first time. Did Bing know that the material in Minding the Gap was going to be so heavy?
Bing said that when he met Keire in Rockford, he knew he wanted to follow Keire’s life because Keire actually wanted to “process his pain.” Most of the other people Bing found had dismissed their pain as “normal,” much like Zack did in the film. When an audience member asked Bing if making the film healed him, Bing immediately answered with a resounding no. Instead, he said the film began the process of healing because it forced him to confront his experiences by answering questions during Q+A’s; he also started going to an actual therapist.
One of the last audience members to take the mic thanked Bing for making Minding the Gap. He grew up in Rockford with a schizophrenic dad. For him, the documentary cast Rockford in a new light and created an emotional space for understanding and processing pain. Perhaps the goal of the film is not to heal what was broken, or to fully reconcile painful pasts with current realities. Rather, Minding the Gap highlights the cyclical nature of domestic abuse and asks viewers to acknowledge victims’ pain, but also to recognize their hope and cheer them on as they battle against the odds to rebuild their lives.