Liu (center) with Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan in Minding the Gap

Opening this Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a two-week run, Minding the Gap is one of the strongest American documentaries to play Chicago this year. Director Bing Liu begins with a seemingly limited subject—skateboarders in their late teens and early 20s in Rockford, Illinois—and pursues it with such diligence and curiosity that the film ends up addressing a number of major issues. Minding the Gap is at once an elegy for urban, blue-collar America and a sobering meditation on domestic violence. Liu’s principal subjects, a black teenage boy named Keire Johnson and a white man in his early 20s named Zack Mulligan, were both abused as children; so too was the director himself. Following Johnson and Mulligan as they enter adulthood while reflecting on his own family history, Liu explores the lasting effects of domestic violence and the ways that young men in particular cope with them. I recently spoke with the 29-year-old Liu about Minding the Gap, his evolution as a filmmaker, and what he learned about his hometown of Rockford by making a movie about it.

Ben Sachs: As you show in the film, you started filming people as a teenager when you shot yourself and your friends skateboarding.

Bing Liu: Not Keire and Zack. That was reverse-engineered later, to make you feel like they were ones in my group. Keire I didn’t meet until I was in my mid-20s. He’s, like, eight years younger than me. But I did film this key scene of him getting into a fight when I was 19 and he was 11. Later on, when I had filmed him for years and was going through archival tapes, I was, like, “Oh my God, I think this is Keire!” Then I built around that. I went to a couple sources who were closer to his age and who had filmed him growing up.

Zack I met when I was 17 and he was 15. I moved away [from Rockford] when I was 19. He lived in a suburb of Rockford, and he came to the skate park and was really good at skating, so I filmed him a few times. I used just about every ounce of footage I had of him [for the movie].

Do you feel there was anything about making skate videos that prepared you for more ambitious projects like Minding the Gap?

What is valued in the skate-video genre is originality and authenticity. Coming from an authentic place and trying new things is important, even if they don’t work. You know, there’s very little reward in it—it’s not like you’re going to be making money off skate videos. But you’ll still take two to three years to make a 25-minute skate video and have it premiere. So it sort of mimics independent filmmaking in a way. There’s also a lot of learning on your own and being OK with making mistakes and trying things.

You make it sound like skateboarding.

It is. Once I started working on set—and this is something Zack brought up recently, because he actually got cast for a fiction film—making movies is like skating in that you take an hour to get one usable clip. You’re always adjusting things and changing the shot . . .

Skate videos are often very good at conveying a sense of movement. I imagine they’d prepare you for long-form storytelling in the sense that stories have to move too. One thing I admire about Minding the Gap is that it always feels like the story’s pushing forward in time. It never feels like the subjects’ lives are stagnant.

I was thinking more about emotional truth than I was about moving forward. When I was 15, I saw this skate video called First Love. Transworld magazine put it out. And it was so artsy. Like, they shot a lot of 16-millimeter vignettes for it; they had every skater in it talk in a nonironic way about falling in love with skating for the first time. You know, they used emotionally open music . . .

And there were other skate videographers who were using Sufjan Stevens and Bright Eyes in their skate videos. I thought, “This really gets at something else. It’s so feminine and ethereal.” In my adolescence I spent a lot of time having 3 AM phone conversations about being depressed, skirting around what was going on at home. And at parties, I’d be the one getting people to talk about their childhoods while other people were doing beer bongs in the living room. When I started doing this project, I went around the country and interviewed all these skateboarders. I was seeking this emotional vulnerability that I knew was there, but I felt we weren’t talking about enough.

But when people talked, there were clear patterns. I met Keire about a year in [to the project], and in our first sit-down interview, he opened up to me about his father, and we commiserated about crying, and then I started following him. I don’t think the story took off until I started following Zack shortly after. His situation was so immediate—he was about to become a father, you know? And every time I was with Zack, this external story just kept unfolding. With Keire, for a long time, it was more a matter of how we were going to further process these unresolved feelings. When things happened to him, they were more subtle, but no less monolithic-feeling for an adolescent, like getting your first job or getting your first car.

I think that Keire getting a dishwashing job is one of the more memorable moments of the film. It’s rare that an American movie treats getting a minimum-wage job as a big deal. But you convey why this is a meaningful step for Keire.

With Keire, a lot of his story’s power was in how open his coping was. It was so onscreen. But in structuring the story, we had to ask, “What are we building towards?” Sure, all this stuff was happening in his life, but ultimately it’s got to culminate in him forgiving his father and seeing his father in a clear way. I feel like the emotional buildup to that worked, but it wasn’t until he moved out [of his mother’s house] that it seemed like we had an external circumstance to build towards. Because when you move out, you have to make money, you have to get a car . . .

I never thought of a dishwashing job as something to be belittled. I think, in hindsight, it was a matter of respecting the emotions of his age group. That’s why I liked Eighth Grade so much. It’s simply respecting the emotions of an eighth-grade girl, and it’s not until we’ve seen it do we realize how much we don’t respect them.

I mean, my first job was as a dishwasher. I was 14. I was still doing it when I moved out of Rockford at 19.

The movie makes Rockford seem very sad.

Yes and no. I was looking at other films and how they characterize place. Oftentimes you see what’s known as “poverty porn,” which is unfortunately the norm in depictions of places like Rockford. I wanted to avoid the whole reality-show technique of driving through a neighborhood with a camera pointed out the window at boarded-up houses, and there’s dark music and sound bites about murders and unemployment. I couldn’t find any examples that struck a balance between honoring the truth of [present-day] statistics and the historical character of a place.

The first time I went to shoot with the intent of establishing Rockford, I was going for architectural beauty. But I realized I wasn’t saying anything with this; I just reached a neutrality. Then I thought, “OK, what are different perspectives of the city?” So my next idea was to shoot empty skate spots. I thought this was cool, because skaters would recognize them as one thing, but other people would see them as details of the city. They’ll eventually recognize that, say, this is a DIY quarter pipe in an empty lot, but first they’ll just ask, “Why are we looking at a handrail?”

That was the first breakthrough, realizing there was a way to show both the city’s emptiness and the opportunities to redefine the public space. I mean, no one wants to hear that the place where they grew up is shitty. That wasn’t my experience of growing up there—it was just where I lived. It wasn’t that I was blind to the realities of the place, but there was a gritty pride in them. Growing up there, we were caught between this intense hatred of the place—a lot of people nicknamed it “Rock Bottom”—and the mayor putting out PR campaigns to fight Forbes magazine calling it the most miserable city to live in in America. There was sort of a blind optimism in that.

Has your view of Rockford changed as a result of making the film?

Now that I’ve spent more time in New York and LA, I’ve grown to see Rockford as more representative of the country than those cities ever could be. There’s more mingling, more idea sharing—people live between greater extremes of ideas there . . . Most of the country is not wealthy, but I think many [urbanites] have this myth in their heads that American poverty is a rural problem or that it belongs to this other community. It’s actually a big swath of the country.

When did you realize you were making a movie about domestic violence?

It was pretty clear early on that it was about unhealthy father-son relations. Loneliness, heartbreak, and what drives you to do unhealthy things—these were at the front of my mind when I did that survey, driving around the country. When I had that conversation with Keire and realized he was my guy, I realized that child abuse was going to be a major theme. And when [Zack’s girlfriend] Nina told me that Zack was being abusive, she led me to the subject again. That kicked off a series of events that led me to interview my mom and enter into the film. I felt that, ethically, I had to put skin in the game and build a case for why I was going there.

Was that difficult to do?

Being in the film wasn’t difficult. Handling the information that Nina gave me was far more difficult than interviewing my mom. That was simply an issue of picking a date to do the interview and hiring a crew.

With the movie, you successfully narrativize how domestic violence can spark a cycle of abuse. The same kinds of events seem to come up again and again. How did you go about structuring the film?

In documentary filmmaking, the beginning is all about access and casting. I followed Zack because he was unlike any other skateboarder I interviewed in that he was about to become a father. I thought this was an opportunity to show where he came from and how he was going to either continue or not continue being his father. I had no idea it was going to lead where it led, but it was in the casting of Zack that this idea was first formulated. The cycle of violence is not a strange idea to people. It’s pretty well-known, and ultimately the film is about a lot more than that. But the interesting part, I think, is when Zack held a mirror to his behavior, how he grapples with it. That’s what the last act of Zack’s story is. For me and Keire, we struggle with [the history of being abused]. And the reason I kept digging in to Keire about his father is because I was wondering . . . I would literally ask him sometimes, “Do you feel like you’re going to hit your kids?” I didn’t keep it in the film, because it was just too on-the-nose and we didn’t need it. And even if he does say yes or no, we can’t know.