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“Minding The Gap” is a 2018 feature documentary nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Shadowproof managing editor Kevin Gosztola offers a review.
The documentary revolves around three characters, who dealt with trauma in their home during adolescence by turning to skateboarding. It grapples with issues of toxic masculinity, including domestic abuse, as well as the struggle of transitioning to adulthood.
One of the characters is Bing Liu, the young Chinese American director of the film. He included himself in the project as a way of encouraging the two other characters to open up about their emotional experiences. His story is one involving an abusive stepfather.
Keire is a black working class teenager, who had an abusive father. Skateboarding helps him endure poverty, racism, and emotional trauma fueled by his relationship with his father. He also is one of the few black skateboarders, which invites bullying from his black peers who see him as trying to be white.
Zack is a white working class father in his early 20s. He has a girlfriend, Nina, and he deals with having to grow up. He sees in himself the destructive tendencies that made his father hard to live with when he was a child.
It unfolds in Rockford, Illinois, which is nearly ninety miles west of Chicago. This is where Liu grew up, and he places deeply personal stories into a social context by highlighting the city’s income inequality, unemployment, etc.
But what makes the film especially moving is Liu’s ability to make Keire and Zack comfortable with speaking to him openly about their innermost frustrations and what makes them feel inadequate as young men.
Liu’s interviews essentially are therapy sessions. He handles both Keire and Zack with exceptional care, showing them empathy even as they confess to behavior that society would find infuriating. He is as careful when talking to Nina.
Even as Liu searches for answers to what has made these troubled characters the way they are, he is never judgmental. In fact, several times the camera is placed off to the side during an interview. Keire or Zack are face whichever direction they choose and engage with Liu how they would like. It allows for a more intimate discussion of embarrassing moments in their lives.
The film was produced over the past five-to-six years, and it developed into a Kartemquin feature documentary after Liu received a Diverse Voices In Documentary fellowship.
Kartemquin is a production company in Chicago that has created character-based social issue documentaries for over 50 years. The company’s films are typically shot in the style of cinema verité, which means they were fly on the wall presentations. Their earliest short films, like “‘63 Boycott” and “Inquiring Nuns,” captured debates of the 1960s as well as the rise of radical student movements on university campuses.
Decades later, the company has benefited from the revolution in streaming services. They are able to more easily distribute their work to audiences and recently produced a television series for Starz called, “America To Me,” that explores issues of race and identity at Oak Park River Forest High School in a liberal enclave in Chicago.
Like “America To Me,” which Liu worked on as a segment director, “Minding the Gap” acknowledges social customs and cultural attitudes that can have oppressive impacts. In fact, the scenes with Keire and Zack that reflect this dynamic are the most profound.
The documentary opens with Keire, Zack, and Liu going up metal stairs on the side of an urban building next to the top of a parking garage. Liu follows Keire and Zack with a camera. They ultimately are afraid to go all the way to the top and jump back to the top level of the garage. As they glide on their skateboards from the top level, there is a voice over from Zack. “When you’re a kid, you just do. You just act. And then somewhere along the lines, everyone loses that.”
Zack appears to be saying you start thinking about what others will think of you if you take a certain action. Then you worry that you will not be able to take that action. You back away from making a choice. You beat yourself up for failing to make a decision you wanted to make. In terms of success, you recognize how society believes a person is supposed to succeed, but you do not see yourself succeeding in that way. So are you ever going to be who you should be as a person?
These are universal anxieties. As they are explored in the film, it is clear they are more intense if you survived abuse. These anxieties are exacerbated further if you fear repeating mistakes your parent made or if race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or poverty is a barrier to loving and trusting yourself.
Liu made the film to show teenage and young adult men that they can talk and make themselves vulnerable. Through smooth cinematography and a keen editing process, he created a powerful film that appeals to our human spirit.