To reach an understanding as to why many of his peers in the skateboarding community ran away from home when they were younger, filmmaker Bing Liu follows two of his friends: 23-year-old Zack and 17-year-old Keire. Zack is becoming a father, but his relationship is volatile. Meanwhile, Keire faces inner struggles with his deceased father. Liu’s Academy Award nominated documentary Minding the Gapexplores the rich emotional texture of the period between childhood and adulthood.
ASFF: Was there a defining moment for you to begin working in film?
BL: I’d say it was more of a series. When I made skate videos it felt in like what 10 years later would be reality, but in a much more disciplined and an almost political way of using film. As a teenager, outside of skate videos I strove to make fiction films, because that’s what I watched; I didn’t watch documentaries as a teenager. Then when I was an undergrad studying English literature, I kept making my short films on the side. I would always try to convince my professors to let me do a film instead of write a paper, and one of them agreed. It was for an Asian-American literature class.
So I did this documentary on two Vietnamese immigrants and their stories of coming to America – of going through family trauma and finding their identity. That would have been what I considered most clearly a documentary. I just emulated what I thought documentary was and it wasn’t until I was a year or two into Minding the Gap that I saw Hoop Dreams for the first time. I’d never seen a film like that. It was a documentary story but filmed like a fiction film, and so that affected me.
ASFF: There was a time when narrative features and documentaries were discussed independently of one another. It appears that this divide has now been bridged. What for you has allowed documentaries to evolve and to be embraced in this narrative concept?
BL: I don’t know if I’ve seen enough films to extrapolate [laughs] on how the changes happen, but I will say that where I have developed is my own belief and voice, and personal manifesto for filmmaking. I feel there is a lot of both talk and dialogue out there, but also films being made with this mindset of putting form above function. I very much put function above form; I’m very much a pragmatist. It’s what works for story and what works to hold the audience’s attention to maintain their understanding of a character’s wants, obstacles and journey -–whatever it takes.
There are a lot of different tools in the tool box, and some were developed or informed by documentary history, and some were more developed on the scripting side. For me being an emerging filmmaker, I think I am more excited by the idea of thinking of it as a tool box, rather than this dichotomy.
ASFF: While you were not present for a key moment such as the death of Keire’s father, the traditional approach was not any less true. How do you respond to this?
BL: There are all different types of truth, and I think we are all collectively starting to understand that there isn’t one capital idea of truth. So again, putting my filmmaker hat on, there are all different types of realities for any person’s experience. There is the truth of what it feels like to process something that has happened, or talking to someone else about how this has happened. It also falls into how any given relationship has changed – the realities are different and open-ended. It’s a good thing to remember as a filmmaker that just because you missed something, it doesn’t mean there’s not another way to not construct it.
ASFF: The magic of cinema is that whilst the characters or subjects are the focus of the film, they are as much a prism for the audience to self-reflect and look inward. How do you feel this resonates with you?
BL: Spielberg talked about films as empathic machines. The reason why I watch films is to feel and to learn. If I can make films that just this, then I’ll feel like I have succeeded. That time of adolescence which Minding the Gapcovers is one of the least examined times in everybody’s lives, just because that’s when you are supposed to become an adult, and you are supposed to shut off these feelings. But what’s lost in that is the idea to stop critically analysing and caring about our feelings.
Minding the Gap is released in theatres and On Demand by Dogwoof. For further information, click here.
1. All stills courtesy of Dogwoof.