Chicago director Bing Liu brings award-winning coming-of-age documentary to the Wexner Center’s Unorthodocs film festival
As a teenager growing up in Rockford, Illinois, Bing Liu was an introvert, but he also had a tendency to corner people at parties and ask them all about their lives.
“We'd talk about their childhood for an hour, and they'd be like, ‘Wait, how did you get me to talk about that?'” said Liu, who moved to the U.S. from China as a boy. “I spent my formative years trying to assimilate and emulate — trying to fit in. So to a certain extent, I had a detached, outsider perspective about things, and this need to feel connected to people by having them acknowledge that, ‘Yeah, I'm going through these similar things, too.' It made me feel less alone.”
That perspective and propensity makes documentary filmmaking a natural fit for Liu, who started out making skateboarding videos. He found he had a knack for the work and before long began landing jobs as a camera assistant. At the same time, he began filming adolescent skateboarders around the country for a future documentary. But about a year and a half into filming, he returned to Rockford, a small city about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, and came across a skater named Keire.
“We connected right away,” Liu said. “Shortly after that, it was like, ‘OK, I'm gonna follow this kid and do a film about him.'”
Then Liu bumped into another acquaintance from the skateboarding scene, Zack. “I found out he was about to become a dad,” Liu said, “so I started following both of them.”
Over time, Liu turned his years of footage into the award-winning documentary “Minding the Gap,” which the Wexner Center will screen on Saturday, Oct. 27, as part of Unorthodocs, the second iteration of the Wex's film festival “devoted to the possibilities of creative nonfiction filmmaking.” Liu will also be on hand for the film's Columbus premiere to introduce the film and hold a Q&A.
“It was very much a garage project. I was doing it without funding,” Liu said. “I was working as a camera assistant, so you're working 14 hours a day changing lenses around, and you're just thinking, ‘I can't believe I got that scene of Keire in the cemetery. I can't wait to go home and cut it.' Or, ‘I just saw that Zack ran off to Denver. How am I going to deal with this?' It was very much this ceramic piece on this pottery wheel I kept going back and reshaping for years. I must have had hundreds of versions of the film that grew over time.”
Initially, “Minding the Gap” seems to focus on how Keire, Zack and others in their late teens in Rockford use skateboarding as a way to bond. But as the film progresses, the issues they deal with become weightier. As the tone grows darker, Liu emerges from behind the camera to become a character dealing with his own childhood trauma alongside Zack and Keire.
“I didn't mean to be in the film the way that I was,” Liu said. “At one point I went to Rockford and I couldn't find Zack or Keire. So one day I was like, ‘Why don't I just interview my brother?' Or, ‘Why don't I interview the skate shop owner?' I took a look at it, and it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. … That just led to my mom.'”
Without giving too much away, part of the film turns on a scene where Liu, now 29, interviews his mother in 2016 about abuse that the two had never really addressed head-on. “Keire and Zack had such a vulnerability to their characters that I didn't have. So I was trying to find ways to be vulnerable,” Liu said. “I needed to find moments where I didn't have control. So that's why I hired a second camera person to film me during that whole [interview].”
It's a painful, uncomfortable and undeniably moving scene — one of many. In another scene, Liu films Keire on Father's Day wandering through a cemetery as he looks for his father's grave, the desperation increasing as the headstone grows more elusive.
But perhaps the most pivotal scene arrives when Zack, who's as charismatic as he is guarded, sits by a river and opens an emotional floodgate, revealing himself to be utterly broken by the things he's faced in his life and the choices he has made.
“He started that interview saying, ‘Do you want the real shit or the fake shit?' I was like, ‘Uh, the real shit?' But I had no idea how deep we were gonna go. If he wouldn't have run out of alcohol to drink, we would have kept talking for another two hours,” Liu said. “There's certain times where you're filming something and you just know, ‘This is gonna be in the film. I have to restructure everything to consider this now.' That was one of those moments.”
At times, as a viewer, it's hard not to wonder how Liu was able to get people to share so many intimate moments of their lives on camera. But it's something Liu has been perfecting ever since those high school parties. “If you film people long enough, and you get them comfortable enough, there's gonna be moments where they're almost speaking in monologue, having a soliloquy,” he said. “A lot of people are surprised that these people were so vulnerable, but it's a combination of a lack of judgment and just not being scared to ask those questions. People wanna talk about deep things; they just feel they don't have a safe space to do it.”