On Friday, September 18th, Bing Liu appeared on a webinar-style Zoom call to talk to students at Clark University about his Academy Award-winning documentary “Minding the Gap”. The film centers on the experiences that young adults Kiere, Zack, and Nina have as they transition from childhood to adulthood (and even parenthood) in the city of Rockford, Illinois. Dean Betsy Huang moderated the conversation. She was joined by Screen Studies lecturer Soren Sorensen, who has directed critically acclaimed documentaries himself.
Evan Wilson, director of the First-Year Experience Program, introduced the event by explaining that every year, rising first-years at Clark have a shared academic experience as part of their orientation. This year, “Minding the Gap” was chosen to be the common “academic text” because of its relevant themes of identity development and overcoming adversity. During orientation, first-year Clarkies brainstormed questions for Liu, which Wilson compiled and Huang presented. The conversation transitioned from answering the prepared questions to answering questions that listening to students typed into the chat in real-time.
The Creative Process
First, Huang asked Liu about his motivation for making the film. He answered, “I used music, movies, and books to give myself a road map for who to be, how to think, how to feel, and who people are… I strive to create a road map for a younger version of myself. It’s devotional art to give to my 14-year-old self. I have faith that can be universal enough to be a road map for other people, too.”
When asked about the evolution of the film throughout its creation, Liu talked about the influence of the cinéma vérité style of documentaries, which was popularized in the French film scene of the 1960s. Rather than planning out exactly what would happen and what he would include in the final cut, Liu stumbled upon important moments by accident.
“I would go to Rockford and be unable to find them. Zack didn’t have a phone for a while, and Kiere was pretty bad at texting back.” Liu said. “So one day when I couldn’t find them, I asked my brother to walk me around the house and talk about things that happened there. That ended up being harrowing. That moment led me to interview my mom and the skate shop owner. Waiting for Zack, Kiere, and Nina led to me filming around town. I was just killing time, exploring, playing, not knowing if it’s gonna go in or not. That was the process.”
Subjects as People, People as Subjects
Many students were curious about the fact that the film implies that Zack commits acts of domestic violence against his then-girlfriend Nina. Both subjects give multiple contradictory accounts of their conflict. Liu discussed the difficulty that he had in dealing with such sensitive subject matter, especially concerning people he was close to: “I didn’t know how I could continue in a way that was safe and ethical… I had to let Nina do the leading because she had the most to lose in terms of safety.”
Liu was very open about the effect that his own trauma had on the filmmaking process. “I felt like a therapist,” he said. “I started to see a therapist while making the film. That helped me work out my own narrative. I have a black hole around my childhood and it’s hard to remember a lot of it.”
Huang went on to ask how Liu built trust with his subjects when talking about intensely personal and triggering topics. He answered, “It’s the patience of letting a moment sit long enough for a feeling to be felt completely. Sometimes it feels like a two-person meditation… Trust comes with time plus this intuitive thing that you have to feel out, just like in any relationship. You can’t fake that.”
Huang, Sorensen, and the students in the audience were all very interested in learning what the subjects of the film are doing now. Liu reported, “Nina could not continue on her journey towards being a school counselor because she’s a single mom… She’s back in the restaurant industry. Kiere is in Phoenix. He moved in with his childhood best friend, who appears in one scene of the film. Zack is in Rockford with Sam, working at his dad’s construction company. He bought a house and is in full-time dad mode. He’s in a much better place in terms of his mental health.”
Before releasing the film publicly, Liu watched it with each of the subjects to get their feedback. He remembered, “Zack wanted to see it just with me… He made jokes in the beginning, but then he got silent and by the end, he was crying. He was taken aback by how much we had given to the project. Kiere laughed whenever he laughed on screen and cried whenever he cried on screen… Nina had the most trouble because she relived her first relationship and her first child. She fell back in love with Zack’s charisma at the beginning, and was hurt by every step of it falling apart all over again.”
In the Q&A section of the chat, a student asked how Liu has given back to the people who gave so much of their time and played such a large role in making his film successful. He answered, “I don’t know if I’ve given much, or enough. They’re asked to come out a lot to university campuses, and they get an honorarium of a few hundred dollars each time they talk. Zack got cast in an independent film by Danish director as a farm guy with mental health problems who runs away from his family. Kiere got an ad hoc sponsorship and was flown around to skate in skate park events.”
“I think the only thing I gave Nina was therapy… [She and my mom] started seeing their stories as bigger than themselves. Any time they came out, women raised their hands in discussion, especially older women, and they talked about how it took them years to get the clarity that Nina got in her early 20s. So I think some self-esteem was gained from that experience.”
Skateboarding on Clark’s Campus
Huang reported that after watching “Minding the Gap”, a group of peer mentors noticed that Clark University does not allow skateboarding on campus. In response, Liu said, “A lot of no skateboarding rules come from liability and the fear of lawsuits. There are places in Europe with universal healthcare where skateboarding is more acceptable. This question is bigger than a sign that says no skateboarding on campus. It gets into all kinds of debates that we should be having about public space and how little of it we have here in the U.S.”
Huang added that when she probed into the history of Clark’s skateboarding ban, she found that “Many of our paths are narrow and we have to balance access for skateboarders, people on bicycles, with students who have accessibility needs… We need to think about public spaces, investments in certain types of public spaces, and who has access, especially in these thickly settled areas.”
In the last few minutes of the call, Liu answered students’ more personal questions about himself. The audience learned that while he can sometimes do a tre flip, he’s “more of a slappy curb, mini ramp guy.” Some of his favorite documentaries are Harlan County, USA, In a Dream, and The Look of Silence.
As for the future of the people who appeared in “Minding the Gap”, Liu said that they have “a relationship that will play out over the rest of our lives.” He mentioned that they have plans to record commentary from Zack, Kiere, and Nina to play over the film on an upcoming DVD release. It is certainly worth keeping an eye on this talented and perceptive filmmaker.