The 2018 Oscar-nominated documentary film “Minding the Gap” follows three skateboarders for a dozen years. It could be just another skateboarding film. It could also be another coming of age film.
While there is plenty of both aspects, reviewers praise Director Bing Liu’s “astonishing debut feature” – as the New York Times calls it – for going layers deeper with “heartbreaking honesty,” Film Comment says.
“ ‘Minding the Gap’ is more than a celebration of skateboarding as a sport and a subculture,” says A.O. Scott in The New York Times. “With infinite sensitivity, Mr. Liu delves into some of the most painful and intimate details of his friends’ lives and his own, and then layers his observations into a rich, devastating essay on race, class and manhood in 21st-century America.”
On Monday, April 15, at 7 p.m. in East Tennessee State University’s Ball Hall Auditorium, Mary B. Martin School of the Arts will present a screening of the award-winning documentary “Minding the Gap” as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers. The film screening is free and open to the public and will be followed by a Q&A and reception with Liu’s co-producer Diane Quon.
“Minding the Gap” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking. The film also took Best Documentary Feature honors at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Sarasota Film Festival, Mountainfilm Festival and RiverRun International Film Festival, as well as the Grand Jury Prize, Best Documentary at Nashville Film Festival.
What makes “Minding the Gap” worthy of the reviewers’ and viewers’ praise – rated 100 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes – is the film’s candid look at the common bond, other than skateboarding, that Liu, Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson share: their experiences with violence at home.
“Lurking behind all that fancy maneuvering and adolescent angst is a young man [Liu] consumed with the subject of domestic violence, a soft-spoken kid who internalized the fact that he was severely beaten by his stepdad, and who came to detect a pattern of dysfunctional father figures among his fellow skaters,” says Variety. “That theme creeps up slow but profound in Liu’s film, which broadens to address such topics as class, race, alcoholism and a terrifying physical rage that can explode behind closed doors.”
Liu, who grew up in Rockford, Ill., escaped to Chicago, two hours away, studying to become an English teacher, working in a camera department and making short documentaries on the side. “I felt like I’d escaped a dark chapter of my life and didn’t have to look back,” Liu says. “But I couldn’t ignore that many of my peers were falling prey to drug addictions, jail sentences or worse.”
Into this multi-faceted slice of life, the young filmmaker has meshed years of skateboarding antics, face-plants, spectacular stunts, bantering and bickering into what Indiewire calls “a lyrical skateboard ballet.”
Fun-loving Mulligan faces adulthood when his girlfriend gets pregnant. Johnson, mulling his own manhood, racial identity and place in his group of white friends, rails against feeling trapped in Rockford.
As Liu continued to film Johnson and Mulligan, he came to realize that he himself “had to become an active and vulnerable participant for a more honest story … In the course of completing the film, I realized that Zack, Keire and I were all harboring toxic experiences buried under the weight of years of not processing the past, and we all chose our own ways of dealing with that pressure.”
The filmmaker does not try to make himself invisible, and an interview with his own mother, is a climactic scene. “Despite Liu’s camera-shyness, he never pretends to be anything other than a part of the story, hitting his subjects with direct, deeply personal questions,” Variety says. “They in turn put their trust in him, speaking candidly, cursing frequently and offering no-strings access to their lives.”
The result of this “troubling and deeply moving” story, says Vox, is “as a work of nonfiction, it’s stunning; as a piece of storytelling, it’s heartbreaking.”
In a Q&A with Pacific Arts Movement, producer Quon said the honest sharing of hard life experiences is what makes “Minding the Gap” so powerful for audiences. “This is why the film means so much to me,” says Quon, who after years in Los Angeles, now also makes films from a Chicago base. “It’s been amazing after we show the film how many young people come up to us and start sharing their story, and that’s what we hope happens …
“If young people are able to share their stories – and that’s a resource that we’re trying to provide on our website – [it helps them] just to know that there are people willing to listen to them.”
Those conversations after film screenings with the filmmakers are one of the special facets of the Southern Circuit that keeps the film series on the Martin School of the Arts schedule, says Martin School Director Anita DeAngelis. “We not only get to share the triumphs and tragedies of these young men who are ‘Minding the Gap’ between youth and adulthood,” DeAngelis says, “but we also get to share our own experiences, learn from the filmmaker and others and process the experience in the Q&A and reception afterward.”
Quon and Liu have found that this gap is felt strongly by many people, and Liu says he hopes to continue telling stories about Midwestern youth and engaging the public in these stories. “What’s clear to me from doing this project is that violence and its sprawling web of effects are perpetuated in large part because these issues remain behind closed doors, both literally and figuratively,” Liu says. “My hope is that the characters who open doors in ‘Minding the Gap’ will inspire young people struggling with something similar – that they will survive their situation, live to tell their story and create a meaningful life for themselves.”
The Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers is a program of South Arts. Southern Circuit screenings are funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.
For more information on the film, visit www.mindingthegapfilm.com. For more information on the event or film series, call the Martin School of the Arts at 423-439-8587 or visit www.etsu.edu/martin. For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346.