Esquire (UK)

Beyond the Board

Minding the Gap is a skate documentar­y that’s not about skating

- By Miranda Collinge

As a teenager growing up in Rockford, Illinois, Bing Liu started making skate videos. He’d capture kids he knew trying to perfect tricks and gain social traction, and he built a reputation among his peers for his work — all fisheye lenses and low angles, shot on fuzzy Hi8 and MiniDV. In his twenties, having moved to Chicago, he decided to take a road trip around America, filming and interviewi­ng fellow skateboard­ers about their relationsh­ips with their fathers. A year into the project, he returned to his struggling hometown — known among fellow Rockfordia­ns as “Rock Bottom” — and he met an 18-year-old skateboard­er called Keire.

“I’m becoming a man and I feel like that’s something I got fucked over on. Because in my childhood I had a really shitty time,” says Keire, a smiley, softly spoken African-American, in Liu’s debut feature-length documentar­y, Minding the

Gap, which won a special jury prize at Sundance and has been nominated for an Oscar. “At home I got discipline­d, and I wasn’t able to escape for a while,” Keire tells Liu. “How did you get discipline­d?” asks Liu, from behind the camera. “Well, they call it child abuse now,” says Keire.

“I knew Keire would be someone worth following long-term after that because he was willing to process his mixed feelings about pain and love in a way that most of the others I’d interviewe­d weren’t,” says Liu, whose film has been lauded by everyone from Barack Obama to Moonlight director Barry Jenkins. “I got the sense childhood trauma was a lot more common than public discourse belied,” he says. “I definitely found it to be true of the skateboard­ers I talked to.”

Liu heard that another skater whom he’d known as a teen, a charismati­c stoner called Zack, was having a baby with his girlfriend, Nina. “I chose to follow him more from a narrative standpoint,” says Liu, thinking Zack’s journey to fatherhood would provide a pleasing counterwei­ght. Little did Liu know that Zack’s own experience of familial violence was a cycle from which he’d yet to break free, until he filmed a frank conversati­on with Nina. Liu was forced to consider his moral duty as a filmmaker, and his motives for making it: confrontin­g his own abusive upbringing, and eventually, reluctantl­y, putting himself in the frame.

Liu is now 30 and has worked for the Wachowskis among others, so his camerawork has come a long way since those distorting lenses and wacky angles. Minding the Gap incorporat­es his archive with more recent footage: it opens with a virtuosic sequence of Zack and Keire making their way around Rockford in the low sun — down the slope of an empty concrete carpark, through deserted streets, over an empty bridge. At first watch, it seems to show the freedom and pleasures of being young, but by the end of the film it comes to seem brave and beautiful and sad.

As with Mid90s, Jonah Hill’s fictional feature on strikingly similar themes, out in April, it turns out Minding the Gap is not about skateboard­ing. It’s a captivatin­g film about deprivatio­n, friendship, race, violence, family and the choices made by three young men who skate like their lives depend on it, because they do.

Minding the Gap is out on 22 March

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