how new doc ‘minding the gap’ addresses mental health in skating
The film’s director, Bing Liu, discusses anxiety in skate culture and breaking through the stigma and silence
Scroll through Bing Liu’s Instagram and you’ll get a sense of his story. In-between skate clips of him and his friends, he’s posing with Barack Obama, he’s standing alongside Tony Hawk, he’s dressed to the nines for the Academy Awards.
He’s the skater-filmmaker behind Minding the Gap, a documentary that Obama included in his annual list of favourite movies, that was nominated for an Oscar, that has a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Not bad for a skate rat from a rust-belt city in Illinois.
“It felt weird,” Bing tells me, referring to the Oscars night. “But the Obama thing was more unexpected. I didn’t even know he had a list!”
Bing’s film follows a group of skaters in the city of Rockford as they reluctantly leap into adulthood. Keire works as a dishwasher and squeezes skating in any chance he gets. Zack works as a roofer and is about to have a kid. The doc reflects on that cusp-of-adulthood anxiety, showing how skating provides an escape from a world of responsibility, and also how it provides a family for skaters from troubled homes. “Skateboarding is more of a family than my family,” Keire says in the film.
Then the film digs deeper. Through conversations with the skaters a pattern emerges: they all grew up in tough homes and experienced physical abuse. You see suddenly how the simple act of pushing down the street on a skateboard can hold their whole world together. “As long as I’m able to go skate I’m completely fine.”
Bing -- who also features in the film, sharing his own story of abuse at the hands of his stepdad -- didn’t know anything about Zack and Keire before shooting. They weren’t that close, he says, just skate homies. “I discovered everything about their families and their inner lives and their pasts through making the film,” he tells me. “I only knew that Zack was a good skateboarder and Keire was very charismatic, talented and open.”
When he sat down with them one-on-one he asked them, What was your household like? Who taught you how to love? Who taught you how to hate? What would you say to your 13-year-old self? “People aren’t used to getting asked these things,” he says. “The first time I sat down with Keire was when he told me about his father." In the scene, he breaks into tears discussing it.
Why don’t skaters open up about their home lives, their anxiety, their emotions more? “Because, oftentimes, skateboarding feels like an escape from everything else,” Bing explains, “so why bring those things into this very positive space?”
"Though the issue of bottling up anxiety, even trauma, isn’t confined to skate culture, there are a lot of people within that community dealing with those things, yet few talk about it and share it, says Bing."
When I speak to Sammy Recko, a London skater in his mid-20s, he says when he was growing up no one wanted to bring their heavy home issues to the skate session. “Fun was at the forefront of everything we did and you didn’t want to be the person to disrupt that. If you had stuff going on back at home, this is where you came to forget it rather than address it.”
For Sammy, too, skateboarding was about escape -- from a broken home, a rough state school, social housing. “When I found skating and was taken in by that community, my life was transplanted to this place where everything had a stake. There was suddenly a reason to come home after school, weekends became important. These kids I was skating with not only cared about my skating but also me. Finally what I did mattered. Who I was mattered.”
Though the issue of bottling up anxiety, even trauma, isn’t confined to skate culture, there are a lot of people within that community dealing with those things, yet few talk about it and share it, says Bing. “People can go a lifetime without really truly talking about it, not just with each other but with themselves, having a self-dialogue about it.” In the film, Bing opens up to Keire, telling him how his stepdad had beaten him. In all the times they’d skated together, he’d never mentioned it. And why would he? Here was a positive space where you could escape those demons.
Part of the reason Bing made the movie, he tells me, is that there’s no guidebook for these issues. “I felt that the 14-year-old version of myself watching this film would feel more comfortable talking about a wider breadth of things with my homies.”
So what’s the cost of not talking about these things? “First and foremost I think you understand yourself less,” says Bing, who attended therapy sessions while making the movie. “Secondly I think your emotional range and how you’re allowed to comfortably exist in different emotions is more limited, therefore I think it comes out in unhealthy ways.”
There’s a scene in the doc where you witness the uglier side of this dialogue-averse masculinity. Nina -- Zack’s girlfriend and mother of his child -- tells Bing that Zack hit her. His drinking had been getting out of hand, too. She shows Bing the scars on the side of her face. That was the moment Bing realised he suddenly had more angles to cover in his film. “My first thought was, holy shit, I think people aren’t gonna believe Nina,” he tells me. “ How do I buttress up her side of the story now?”
How would Bing confront his fellow skater about the abuse? The two sit down together in a quiet moment by a lake. “It was tough in the filmmaker-ethics sense more than in the friend sense,” he says of the confrontation. “I didn’t feel like I was betraying my best friend.” At the same time, I say, it goes to show you can never really know how your friends and acquaintances are behind closed doors with their girlfriends. Bing agrees. “I grew up in a household where I saw firsthand how a guy can be one way in the house and a different way outside of the house.”
As the doc unspools, becoming increasingly forensic in its examination of its themes, deeper questions surface. Was Zack repeating the mistakes of his father? Was the abused becoming the abuser? “It was like, yeah, sometimes you accidentally become your dad, it’s the craziest thing,” Bing says. “Zack felt not only the polarising feelings of frustration and anger about how his dad treated him, but also a guilt and respect for his dad.”
Towards the end, Bing asks Keire what he’s gotten out of the documentary. “Free therapy,” he answers. But what about Bing, was the process of making the film a form of therapy, too? “I felt more like I was the therapist,” he laughs.
‘Minding the Gap’ is out today in UK cinemas.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.