Toxic masculinity, endless abuse: Minding the Gap’s tangled web
Bing Liu’s complex Oscar-nominated documentary is carefully engineered film-making
Minding the Gap: Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson in Bing Liu’s film. Photograph: Bing Liu/Sundance
Few sensitive viewers will question the power of Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap. But it requires some disentangling to work out exactly what one is watching.
Nominated for best feature documentary at the recent Oscars, the film goes among the lives of three young men, one of them the director, as they engage with apparently endless cycles of toxic masculinity.
Keire Johnson, an African-American, struggles with conflicted memories of his father. Zack Mulligan is caught up in a turbulent relationship with his partner. All three were abused by parents or step-parents. All three enjoyed skateboarding the streets of Rockford, Illinois, as youths. It looks like the tale of three pals growing up over a decade.
“Not Keire and Zack. That was reverse-engineered later, to make you feel like they were ones in my group,” Bing recently told the Chicago Reader.
Okay. Make sense of this for me.
So many of us have experienced some degree of trauma. And the universal experience is that we regard dismissing that trauma as part of growing up
“It seems like it began with me filming Zack and Keire when I was a 14-year-old boy,” he tells me. “People took that aspect away from the film in a way I didn’t expect. That surprised me. I was 15 and I wanted to do a short doc on skateborders around America. What that meant if they didn’t come from the best family circumstances.”
The chronology is complicated here. Bing shot Keire first when the film-maker was 19 and his subject was 11. Later, when he began talking to Keire for the film, he realised that he had this earlier footage of him as a boy. Gradually the three stories came together to form a surprisingly cohesive whole.
“I have a slight issue with the way people word that,” he says. “It was constructed so that I take the earliest footage I shot to make it feel like it’s random. Most of the archival Zach and Kiere footage was shot by other people.”
This gets more confusing still. So part of his job was curating other people’s footage of his subjects?
“Yes, the past footage,” he says. “There is present day footage – where you welcome them grown up in the present day. That’s what the film is. That’s its heart. But it’s not a pure verite film. We have skate montages. We have meta-interviews with the film-maker.”
At any rate, Bing, a 29-year-old Chinese-American, has assembled a hugely powerful study of the way man hands misery on to man.
When he started out he had no intention of including his own story, but it eventually became clear that those experiences knitted eerily with the other two subjects. From an early age he was hammered by a stepfather who allowed no dissent within the house. We see him talk movingly to his mother about the experience. It seems like a tense interview.
“Again that’s a trick of editing,” he says. “You don’t see the laughing and joking before the interview. I had the crew record every moment. That was the only time I hired more crew. It was easy. ‘Can I interview you?’ I asked, and she said to set a time. We use the most challenging part of that interview.”
The weary similarities of the three stories press home the cyclical nature of abuse.
Deep into the film, we realise that Zack has been hitting his partner, Nina. All kinds of assumptions about his easy-going character are immediately undermined. It’s an uncomfortable moment.
“One thing I did when I was making the film was take a 40-hour domestic advocacy course,” Bing says. “You learn about the systemic nature of this problem, but also the human toll. It’s a myth this happens more often in working-class communities or with people of colour.
“This resonates because so many have experienced some degree of trauma. And the universal experience is that we regard dismissing that trauma as part of growing up.”
Bing has accumulated a lot of film-making experience over the past decade. He has been a camera operator on shows such as Sirens and The Girlfriend Experience. He worked on movies such as Chi-Raq and Jupiter Ascending.
Minding the Gap lost to Free Solo at the Oscars, but its reputation was made. Barack Obama named it one of his 10 films of the year
Still, the acclaim that came his way after the premiere of Minding the Gap at Sundance in 2018 was something of a shock. The streaming service Hulu picked up the film and Oscar conversation began.
“It was my first time in the Awards-Industrial Complex,” he says, laughing. “I had hoped that it would happen and I had emotional preparation for it not happening. But Hulu wanted to push it for awards. That’s what their plan was.”
The film lost to Free Solo, but its reputation was made. Barack Obama named it one of his 10 films of the year. The reviews have been consistent in their enthusiasm. So what have the subjects of Minding the Gap made of it? There are unhappy truths here.
“They were on board,” he says. “They were emotional. I don’t know if ‘happy’ is the word. They were supportive. They were proud of me.”