The Storytelling Lab - Ep14: Minding the Gap with Bing Liu
Updated: Apr 27
This week, we take a break from our normal interviews to share a conversational interview, recorded last year at the Full Frame Film Festival, between Rain and Bing Liu, director of Oscar nominated documentary Minding the Gap!
Last spring, I sat down in Cinema 3 of the Full Frame Film Festival to watch a skateboarding documentary called Minding the Gap. I’d heard good things about it.
Mostly, I thought it would be a little break from the heaviness of Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers and other movies that were about topics like death and depression. Also, I grew up with a lot of skaters and I’d just finished my own documentary about a movement-based culture (freestyle calisthenics), so I thought I would dig it.
First, I was blown away watching director Bing Liu’s beautifully shot footage of Zack and Keire, the two main characters, skating every inch of concrete in Rockford, Illinois. Bing is also a skater, so I knew this helped him capture the movement as well as he did.
Then, something happened. The movie dove into why these kids were spending all their time skating, as a central theme of parental abuse seeped out of their stories.
I saw myself in them. So did Bing. So did many people, I believe.
What started out as peek into the lives of skaters turned into one of the most emotionally wrought discussions of the cycle of abuse I’ve ever seen. And what started out as a scrappy independent documentary shot by a “one man band,” has now won more than 50 awards and is nominated for an Academy Award for Feature Documentary.
What a journey.
I’m was so inspired as a filmmaker, and I was so ripped apart as a child who grew up dealing with abuse. I went home that night and sobbed in my girlfriend’s arms, promising her I would not be that type of parent to our daughter (who was due any day, at that point).
That night, I reached out to Bing to tell him how his film affected me. We met the next day, before he left, and had an honest conversation about the film and cycles of violence.
The day after that, my girlfriend Maya gave birth to our daughter, Bellamy.
I originally wrote about the movie and my conversation at Chapelboro.com, but in honor of the Academy Awards this weekend, and me rooting for someone to win harder than I ever have, I’m releasing our original conversation for you to hear.
It was honest and it was real. I hope you enjoy it.
(And Bing, I’m so incredibly proud of you, my friend. Keep telling stories that change the world.)
Some of the highlights of our conversation:
Beautifully filming a movement-based culture like skateboarding
Bing's choice to insert himself into the narrative. What are the positives/negatives of a personal narrative documentary?
Relationships with fathers (and mothers)
The cycle of abuse, and how do we stop the cycle?
The positives of talking about trauma in therapy and how creating art can be a form of healing/ therapy.
The documentary (also at Full Frame!), Three Identical Strangers
Storytelling on stage, at The Monti and The Moth. The power of getting up in front of a group of people and telling a personal narrative.
Yoga and Meditation
How skating, or any physical movement, can be a form of meditation
Sports versus arts-- and, where do they intersect?
Listen in to learn more about taking creative risks, following your heart, the journey of creating documentary film, and cycles of violence that affect our young men.
P.S. The audio is at times hard to hear because we were in a crowded and noisy Filmmaker Lounge at the Carolina Theatre, so below you can find the transcript of our conversation!
Peace and Love,
Rain: I often have been reticent or reluctant to put myself in the stories… was it tough for you to make that decision?
Bing: Yeah, it was tough… not that I have a beef against personal docs. It's just hard once you put yourself in. It's already hard enough to get perspective when you’re making a film, so it would just make it even more difficult. I feel like the story I wanted to tell is a verite, a film that you get to experience, and I just didn't know how to do that with my personal story. It was sort of a storytelling problem more than a vulnerability problem.
Rain: What was the point where you found yourself saying, this is going to be aided so much by me putting myself into the narrative?
Bing: Well someone suggested that I should put my story in the film. That was a moment where I was like, alright, fine, maybe. Cause I had sort of thought about it. At that point, it was a rough cut screening, where I felt like I had learned a little bit how to manage rough cut screenings. So when that person said it, I was like, can I get a show of hands. Who else thinks I should try and put myself in the film? And, it was everybody and I was like, okay, this is really saying something.
Rain: One of the things that kinda hit me was how we tend to normalize behavior like that. I noticed that with the kids, but also I kind of noticed that with your mom and, it’s just like my mom, you know? And… my dad quit drinking. And we ended up having a great relationship before he passed, so everything ended well. But even still, I will tell these stories and not find my mom saying, “Oh, it wasn't that bad.” I think like your mom said almost that exact line. Like, “I didn't think it was that bad…”
Bing: And Nina mirrors that and I think. I set out with this idea that, you know, relationships with fathers, it's going to be a big theme. I didn't expect this mother-son relationship to become a theme that's mirrored in a lot of different ways as well. But yeah, you're right, there's this defense, and that all figures out into the cycle of violence.
Rain: Why is that, do you think?
Bing: I mean the cycle of violence is an abuser abuses someone in a relationship and that person is hurt, they want to get away, but then immediately after, the abuser will apologize and try to win them back. And then there'll be a period of, like a honeymoon period, and then it builds up again. That's the cycle. So what happens to the women in these situations is that, basically, you're in love with someone that hurts you. And they know that, so it's a form of control.
Rain: So did this [making the film] help you navigate dealing with it yourself?
Bing: I think in conjunction with therapy, right? It was like a big homework assignment outside of therapy. But I think, you know, there are things that sorta help you formulate it into a bigger pattern and make you feel like you're not alone. And therapy did that. I took a 40 hour domestic violence course, where we learn the available studies that have been done. What is the cycle of violence? Like how do these cycles get complicated by like class and race… And then just talking about it to people, getting perspective, not only on just making the film, but having these conversations, for the first time, with all the people my life.
Rain: How do we not repeat these patterns?
Bing: Well, I mean you understand that our childhoods are so precious and that's where we learned a lot of things that are invisible to us. I mean we really have this alarm system. When you burn yourself on a stove for the first time, when you're a kid, it's like you automatically pull back. But when you experience things that aren't normal in the household, your alarm system, it becomes faulty. Right? And then you grow up and you never sort of realize that you have this alarm system in the first place. So when something triggers you or something like happens that your body remembers as something to react against as a child… you know, say your dad was angry and you had to like get all quiet or turn into a different person as a kid to sort of temper that or to not let it get any further so that affects you or whatever… your adult self is going to remember that. So just understand that some things are just built into us. It's not a fatalistic way, like not in a way that we can never unlearn, but I think that's the first step… You just have to work at it. And if there's not a lot, but I think, the main shortcut for most people is therapy. Being able to talk it through and starting to have these self realizations slowly, as the boys in Minding the Gap do.
Rain: What was the most helpful thing for you in therapy?
Bing: Probably realizing that I was uncomfortable around my mom cause I’d never even realized that. It was blind spot… there’s this ideal, especially if you have a bad relationship with your father, this ideal of motherhood that our society sorta builds up in our heads, and they are just this loving, perfect mom in our heads. And um, I had that and I that was my obstacle, not seeing that actually I felt really uncomfortable around her. I felt anxious and stressed whenever I was around her.
Rain: Why do you think that is?
Bing: I think it's because she needs a lot of help. And I think she tried to have me be her support system growing up. It was a lot of weight and even though I tried to sort of be that for her, I wasn’t honest about the fact that I was actually uncomfortable by that.
Rain: How old were you when the abuse was happening?
Bing: I was eight years old when we moved in with them. And that was the first time that he, you know... I was alone with him and he asked me to get some firewood. I was like, “no thanks.” I don't know why I said that. But he took me and just threw me across the room... I kind of blocked out a lot of memories.
Rain: Your stepfather wasn't a drinker or anything like that?
Bing: He was in the past, which I found out later. I sort of went and interviewed his daughter, my stepsister, and found out a little bit of background on him. At one point we were really building him up and sort of investigating who he was and why. You know, ultimately we figured it's actually more resonant when it's just more about me... cause I'm connected to these stories that you're invested. And my stepfather feels a little extraneous.
Rain: So did your brother experience this as well?
Bing: Oh yeah. I think worse than me. Cause he, you know, that's his biological son and he was always with him. Like my mom and I moved out several times… there were periods where he was not in our life. But yeah, I mean my brother was always with him. My brother, I think he struggles with things way worse than I do. He didn't graduate high school, and is just working in a fast food restaurant.
Rain: It's similar to my brother. He was older by six, seven years and he took the brunt of the physical abuse because my dad was like, cool when you're young and then when you started to become a man... that's when he would kind of transition. Like he loved babies, loved me when I was a kid and then he quit [drinking] when I was about 14, which was good because he was getting super weak… and it's interesting for me to look at because my brother is still completely fucked up by it. He went down, the alcoholic train-- he's in recovery now. But he repeated a lot of the same patterns. For me, I was a kid and I thought that was normal. I talked to my teachers… and my mom would tell me not to tell people about it. Like we'd stepped over my dad passed out on the floor… But my brother found himself having to kind of defend the family. And so it's almost like a reversal of you and your brother… I just, as I get older, I want to be conscious of it because it's there. You know, we dealt with the same thing. We maybe handle it a little bit differently, but I fight the same demons that my brother does.
Bing: Yeah, that’s why I made the film because I was so terrified of what if this just starts happening? What can I do?
Rain: But, I think job well done for sure. I know it took a long time to find that narrative when you're just shooting and shooting and shooting. But yeah, it was, I don't know man, it was great. It just really hit home. I appreciate it. I'm glad you came out.
Bing: I’m glad it touched you in the way it did and I'm glad you reached out. You know, like honestly, that's the sort of impact that we hope to have with the film is to open this up and make people remember that this shit matters.
Follow Bing @BingLiu89
And watch Minding the Gap on Hulu
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