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Oscar-Nominated Minding the Gap Director Bing Liu on America’s Masculinity Crisis

Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

For all the conversation lately about portraits of masculinity in the Midwest (or lack thereof), one of the most quietly stirring comes from Bing Liu’s Oscar-nominated documentary, Minding the Gap. Centering around a love of skateboarding, the documentary initially follows three skaters living in Rockford, Illinois — Keire Johnson, Zack Mulligan, and the filmmaker himself — before revealing what these lost boys had in common: a life marked by domestic violence. Slowly, the narrative digs into deeper grooves, and we see Zack become abusive to his girlfriend Nina, and Liu discussing his own childhood abuse at the hands of his stepfather in a raw discussion with his mother. Liu filmed most of the footage over a five-year span between 2012 and 2017, but he also draws from a well of archival footage that captures the inexorable loss of childhood. In a conversation over coffee in New York, we discussed the curious intimacy of interviews, how the violence he experienced was racialized, and his Oscar nomination.

How does it feel to be interviewed, as opposed to being the interviewer?
It’s been an opportunity to reflect, and it’s almost part of the journey, because I get to understand and explore the meaning of the film and dissect it as if I were just a critic deconstructing the film.

Have you discovered any interesting insights during that process?
For the past year a lot of people have tried to fish for the difficulties of going into my own story, and I was always frustrated by that, because I just didn’t see it in that framework when I was making it. But now in hindsight I am able to step back and see, well, okay, it was emotionally difficult at times. I didn’t go into those interviews with my mom and brother, former mentor, looking to do some challenge. I anticipated it might be kind of emotionally tough, but I was looking for exposition. I thought of it as, like, I’m going to go and get backstory for the character I’m filming. And then it just developed into a difficult place where, for my mom, I ended up feeling like I was trying to settle a score almost, and I didn’t see it. I was blind to it.

I probably just blocked it right out right afterward, because we kept cutting that scene and it just felt like exposition still. Then when Josh Altman came on to finish cutting the film with me, [and] took a stab at that scene, what he cut is basically what you see in the film, which is nothing like the scene that I cut with my mom. He honed it, hyperfocusing in on the part of the two-hour interview where I confronted her. Josh was able to really pull out the vulnerable, uncomfortable moments. I was blind to that. I didn’t even remember that happening, in a way. Not like that, at least.

Sometimes other people can see our narrative better. What were your blind spots with regard to your relationship with your mother?
I think it has to do with the defense mechanisms that I’ve developed as a child, which is to black out, to avoid, to deflect. And just being with my mom and talking about those things triggered me to go back to that. So it’s different than I know this is difficult. I’m gonna try to power through it. It’s like a subconscious or conscious thing, almost like an awareness or lack-of-awareness thing. I felt like I had more of a grasp on my relationship with Zack, Keire, and Nina.

It wasn’t like, I’m gonna go and have my character journey be about confronting his past. It wasn’t until I started working with Josh, where it’s like, Oh, no, there’s another layer to your story. It’s you confronting the past. It’s not just your relationship growing with these people as a filmmaker. It’s you doing something about what happened to you. You’re trying to go back and make sense of it with your family.

Was that the first time that you had talked to your mother about the abuse?
At that length and depth, yeah. My mom and I didn’t have much of a relationship. I was born in China, and she was working and going to school all the time. My grandparents took care of me most of the time, and then when we moved here my mom and dad divorced almost immediately, and she was just about working. She illegally left me alone all the time. And then when she met my stepfather, she still worked, second and third shifts. I’d come home from school as she’s leaving, and then as I got older I just tried to not be in the house as much as possible. Once I moved to Chicago, I was just like, I’m severing my relationship with my family. That’s the past. And then when I started going out to Rockford to do the film, in the background was my mom finally trying to leave [the marriage].

Things were getting so bad once I left. He shot a gun at her in the house. That incident happened that she talked about on the phone where she gets choked and my brother calls the cops. And so for the first time I felt like I could go to a relatively safe spot, which was the apartment she had moved into with my brother, and try to rebuild our relationship almost from scratch. I tried talking about the past with her, and it was just really difficult. I didn’t have a reason to keep on trying. Whereas in the film I was like, Well, I had the confines and the structure and the purpose of making this film to latch onto, to keep plodding on.

Interviews are a weird box to work in. They’re this constructed thing, but sometimes you can force a therapeutic conversation that might be harder otherwise.
Yeah, and I felt like I was having primordial versions of that as an adolescent. I mean, in hindsight I would say that I was just really interested in “dishing” and “truth circling” — more like stirring the pot in that way. But yeah, I just love interviewing people. I remember growing up getting accused a couple times, like, “You just extract stories from people.” Because I didn’t talk about myself very much, but I really enjoyed spending a lot of time talking to other people about their life. The reason for doing that was I didn’t know how to be intimate with people. I didn’t know how to give and receive love, and that was a step toward that in just hearing people talk about vulnerability, hearing people talk about their emotional inner lives in a way that feels very tender and precious and delicate.

Did you ever consider talking to your mom in Mandarin?
I don’t speak good enough Mandarin. One of the things that kind of sucks is that my stepfather, as a way of control, made my mom and me stop speaking Mandarin to each other. So I sort of lost it. I took it again as an undergrad, and it came really quickly back as my first language, but it wouldn’t have been the same interview. I don’t think it could have been. Plus, she speaks — her folks are from Chengdu, and Sichuanese is just another layer of difficulty for me, at least to understand.

Were there other racialized aspects to his violence?
Yeah, in so many ways. I think I’m going to base it off the model of domestic violence, though. Domestic violence is about control, right? The ways that you control her financially, verbally, physically, abusing her kids. I mean, there’s this whole chart. He used cultural abuse toward us and called us names, called my mom names.

Slurs. Called my mom “Chopsticks.” And it was just to demean, just to make us feel less than. It also fits into the pattern of white man dominating an Asian woman who needs him in financial and legal ways. So much of that relationship and that marriage was about our citizenship. I didn’t get my citizenship until I was 14. And then they had a child the first year they were married, which is another form of control, using the child. First and foremost, for them it’s about domination and control, and racism came out of that.

Right, and I’m not trying to create a superseding framework in any way, but I wanted to know if there was a racist valence to it.
Totally. It’s a bummer. There’s only so much we can fit into a 90-minute film. But part of what I meant of me seeing myself in Keire, it goes beyond the way father figures treated us in the household. I was also talking about the way that he had to learn that his race mattered, because I went on a very similar journey. I was ashamed of my Chinese-ness, tried hiding it, thought I forgot about it, still felt uncomfortable with friends, had to learn how to code switch, and then slowly realized it’s going to have an impact on my world that I can’t control. Ultimately, really learning to step back and being self-accepting. That journey was also what I meant when I told Keire that. So it’s not in the film, but I know that, and maybe other people will pick up on that.

Growing up in Florida, I’ve always liked Asians who grow up in weird places. I feel like the ones who grow up in L.A. are …
Oh, yeah, they’re so self-possessed like, Oh, yeah, I have my culture. I have my community. I’ve got my friends. There’s almost a pride there that I think I used to be jealous of, and now I’m proud to be outside of that. I don’t know. I feel weird being Chinese-American now. So much of this country racially, the narrative and the dialogue around it, is a black-and-white dialogue. It’s built into the history of this country. I think we’re just a lot more fractured, the Asian-American diaspora. It’s confusing and frustrating. I wish there was more cohesion. I wish there was some unifying force. I don’t know. I was thinking about that Harvard lawsuit. I feel ashamed that that lawsuit was happening.

What did you feel ashamed about?
I feel ashamed because I identify as Asian-American, and I just really don’t agree with those values, and I don’t want to be conflated with them.

Right, like the ultraconservative parts of Asian-America.
Yeah, like conservative, political, elitist, individualistic. This greedy, capitalistic, “I have mine, so fuck you” sort of thing.

What was the process of going through all of that archival footage?
The reason why I dug into the archive at first was again trying to find this organic way to tell my story. Like, I’m going to show my own journey as a filmmaker filming in this Rockford community. And then I found a little bit of Zack, and then I stumbled upon this clip of this young, black skateboarder getting into a fight at this skate park, and trying to break this other kid’s board, and like, What the fuck, is this Keire? The only time you get to see Keire angry is in the archival, because he talked about being angry in interviews in present day, but he never showed it. He’s such a positive, optimistic guy. So archival helped a lot.

How did the final climactic montage come about?
We did a screening at Davis Guggenheim’s place in Venice, and he was like, “It’d be great if you could have all these planes land at once.” And we took that note, but we were just like, “Okay, I don’t know how to do that,” and then we kept editing. I rented an Airbnb in Venice where Josh lives. He called me, and he had just smoked weed, and he was high watching this episode of Bloodline like, “I just saw this intercut montage scene, and it was really interesting. What if we tried that as a way to thread all these up?” So that night I was so excited about the idea, I just cut a first pass of it. He came in the morning, we watched it back, and we were both like, “Oh, shit. It needs some work, but this is the climax of the film.”

Did filming and observing Zack give you insight into this crisis of masculinity white men seem to be experiencing?
Absolutely. He is a very charismatic and self-aware version of what you’re describing, which is this modern-day white male existential crisis. I think ultimately it has to do with the masculine scripts failing. My take in this film was the way in which we do or don’t deal with emotions manifests itself in every aspect of your life. In the climax of the film, Zack talks about why he feels like he has to hide his true self and he has to wear a mask. His life, then, is one where he feels emotions that he can never let out. And he has this outward charismatic one that is based off getting people to like him and accept him.

And that’s a fucked-up tension to live with, and the only solution is running away and drinking. I mean, if you were to just meld those two parts of yourself together and be able to feel things like vulnerability and compassion, softness and delicacy and empathy … you still have to do the work of processing and making good decisions and having a moral compass, but at least you’re actively doing it. When you’re living this dual life, you’re not actively doing it. You put power and control above everything else. I’ve been reading this bell hooks book called All About Love, and one of the most striking ideas in that book is that as men, as long as we put power and control and domination above everything else, we shut ourselves out of the ability to not only give love but to receive love.

I think that’s a humongous problem. So much of what Zack struggles with is his relationship with love. He never really felt like he got that love as a child, and I don’t know if he’s going to be able to truly get it as an adult if he doesn’t relinquish this nervous need to maintain power and control over everything. Yeah, what’s striking is the different takes about him as a character from audiences. A lot of people just find him a complex character, and they don’t know what to make of him. A lot of people see versions of their friends they grew up with. A lot of people see themselves, and a lot of people hate the shit out of him.

Maybe because they see themselves?
Either that or they feel like they have been affected by people in a negative way like him. They just haven’t gotten to that place where they can forgive, which is totally fine. Nina even told me years later that I was the only one that she was talking to as it pertains to her and her relationship with Zack, which is an astounding level of isolation. What her life must have been like. And Keire, when we cut that interview where we commiserated about crying after getting beaten, that was our first real sit-down interview.

And it just took years for him to do that work of revisiting, feeling real vulnerability and emotion, stepping away from it, revisiting, repeat, to get to a place where he felt more holistic as a person. Anyway, what that said to me was that it is not easy to break the cycle. It takes a lot of work, but it’s possible. And this is what it looks like. And it’s one version of that journey.

How did you feel about your Oscar nomination?
You know what? I’m like that guy at the birthday party who’s sad at my own birthday party. I was just like, Oh, cool, I’m gonna go on the shoot now that I have to go do. I mean, I was in bed sick with the flu, and I was up at like three in the morning, just in and out of delirium. I’ve been watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Love the show. But then I noticed the time, I was like, Oh, shit, I’m like a half-hour late to this start of the streaming. I tune in two categories away from doc features, and they announce the thing, and I was just like, All right.

And the phone just started blowing up, and I just put it down, and I just lay there for a second. And I had to take Tylenol because I have to get up, get dressed, and go on this shoot inside of Cook County Jail interviewing this inmate that we had been following, and it’s a very sobering next environment to be in after finding out this news. And I think it was probably the ultimate grounding experience.

What’s the film about?
It’s about young men confronting the past in order to move forward as it pertains to neighborhoods in Chicago that experience gun violence. That one we’re going into post on, and then we’ve developed and are about to start production on a documentary about millennial love, intimacy, and dating. It’s a worldwide project that follows people around the world.

Is your mom proud of you?
Yeah, absolutely. That’s the main thing that I know her thoughts about all this. I never heard her take on the film in any deep way or anything. I mean, it’s more that she’s just proud of her son.

You’d have to do another film to know what she thinks about it.
I know. [Laughs.] And now the scene where I confront my mom about my last film. “Mom, what did you really think? You never told me.” “I’m doing this because I love you, Bing!” Yeah, that’d be fucked up. That would definitely be exploitative.

Minding the Gap’s Bing Liu on America’s Masculinity Crisis