An interview with Bing Liu, the director of MINDING THE GAP
The skateboard film culture as we know it is evolving. From having been classically depicted in films such as Lords of Dogtown, Kids and Paranoid Park, it is now moving away from the usual tough skater rat image and tackling bigger issues such as gender, pain and trauma. The new skate films are expanding not only the visual aesthetics and values in skateboarding but also the core message. Skate Kitchen and Mid90s are two feature films being released this year and though they’re very different films set in two different eras, they both portray skateboard culture together with the agony of growing up in a world that’s tough. The same issues are highlighted in Bing Liu’s new documentary, Minding the Gap where childhood trauma, identity issues and abuse is being explored through the lens of skateboarding.
The film is compiled of 12 years of footage, filmed in Liu’s hometown of Rockford, Illinois. Liu spent years documenting himself and the lives of his fellow skater buddies. The raw footage of them skating, growing up and tackling real-life issues is combined with intimate interviews about their experiences with abuse, alcoholism and negligence. Liu also shares his own experiences with growing up in an abusive household and he explores this by interviewing his own mum about what happened in his childhood and why. It is a strong and powerful film about how to make the best of what you have been given in life, and how our childhood experiences shape us.
We ended up having a conversation about European skateboarding, how skateboarding can be an anxiety relief and why sometimes, hopelessness comes with freedom.
CC: First of all — I loved the film. I didn’t know what to expect before watching it, but I write a bit about skateboarding so…
Liu: Are you based in Stockholm?
Yeah, what do you mean?
Well, Sweden has a really interesting skateboard culture, because Polar is this really big skateboard company in Malmö. It has sort of like braced up the European skateboard industry as its own independent culture.
Now it’s like the states looking at Europe going like “Oh, man, that’s what we want to do.” So before, like this is from what I’ve heard because I obviously didn’t grow up in Europe skateboarding, but like I feel like the Europeans used to look at the US skateboarding industry and strive for that, but because of like Pontus Alv in Malmö, now there’s this movement in Europe to create their own skate thing. The videos, the music, it’s like its own style. It’s very European — in a good way!
It’s really interesting, I kind of agree because I feel like in the 80s and 90s, like growing up watching MTV, Nickelodeon, Ricki Lake, we thought it was so cool to be American but then I feel like America got too big in a way. It infiltrated all the popular culture and now I feel like we’re getting more local. Because the world is so global, it’s cool to be local now.
I like that. I really appreciate European skateboarding. That’s one perspective I have of Europe. It’s mostly the type of tricks and the way people skate and like the artwork of skateboards and brands here. But also, the types of music.
At this point Liu and I start to discuss the notion of why everybody in Sweden tends to dress the same in their dark clothes, why that is and how the law of Jante affects us. The conversation got steered in that direction due to a bubble-gum coloured faux fur coat that ehrm…the interviewer was wearing. Needless to say, we got wound up in a discussion that had absolutely nothing to do with the film. But luckily, Liu steered the conversation back to skateboarding. I’ll let him take it from here.
Liu: What I like about skateboarding is that it’s changing all the time, there’s no real authoritative figure determining what is cool or what is acceptable. It’s like direct democracy in that way.
Yeah, especially that thing you’re saying, that there’s not an authority dictating what skateboarding is or isn’t. That element brings certain types of people into the skateboarding culture. Just to take an example and connect it to your film, I started skating last year because I really wanted to learn how to skate. So last summer I was like hanging out every day in my local skate park, getting to know people, especially a lot of people younger than me. And what I noticed, and I’m super-generalising now, is that a lot of young people that spent hours and hours on end in the skate park came from troubled backgrounds, needing a sort of outlet. I feel like I saw that in your film as well. Like you all had challenging backgrounds and that somehow pushed you to skateboard. Do you see that connection and why do you think that is?
That’s why I made the film, to find out why that was. I mean there’s a reason people stayed until the lights went off and stayed even later and just didn’t want to go home. I think in a weird way we all thought that it was very particular to our lives. But as I got older I realised it wasn’t just particular to us.
I was just interested in how skateboarding and that community can be an interesting lens to look at this timeless issue of family dynamics and what it means to grow up, with trauma and abuse and pain. And how, if you’ve gotten bit by the bug of skateboarding, how that affects you growing up.
Can you see what skateboarding does for people that are suffering from anxiety? Can you see a direct correlation or how it can help? Because personally, I feel that skateboarding is helping me with my own anxiety, and I don’t know exactly what’s happening…I think it has something do to with getting rid of excess energy and being afraid of something “real” because skateboarding is scary. So, you can’t focus on your own thoughts, you have to focus on the now. Do you see what I mean?
Yeah, well the way I think about anxiety, anxiety is about control and trying to control things that you don’t have control over. And skateboarding in many ways is like a lot of other things that try to make you be present and in the moment. Except, the way skateboarding works is that — if you’re not present in the moment, you will fall and get hurt. So eventually you learn that, consciously or subconsciously. In order to make the best use out of skateboarding, you have to be in a state of mindless being. Where you’re sort of like flowing: you’re just in the flow of it. I think that’s sort of what’s happening in terms of skateboarding and anxiety.
Exactly, it’s like meditating when skateboarding or cruising.
Yeah, it’s sort of meditation in motion.
Watching your film, I got a sense of hopelessness, but also an immense sense of freedom. It’s like you guys were stuck somewhere, you were all trying to get out and move on. But at the same time… the boards were giving you freedom. It emphasised the freedom that skateboarding gives you, not only physically but in your mind. Two contrasts, side by side in your film.
I feel like storytelling should put the emotions in the story first. We’re used to the documentary genre to be very issue-driven, it can be, but a lot of my processes are learning how to put emotions in the story first. Once I started wanting to tell a story about characters growing up, then it became this slow transition into “what is the story”, what are the emotions that these people feel. People who find such freedom in skateboarding, they find such hopelessness in life maybe. And that’s okay.
Bing Liu’s film MINDING THE GAP is out now and can be watched at Hulu