To mark the UK release of Oscar-nominated documentary Minding the Gap, which follows the intertwined lives of three skaters in Rockford Illinois reckoning with their past, Hannah Strong revisits her own hometown memories and the weight they still hold.
There’s a lot of concrete in Rockford, Illinois. It stretches on and on, wide grey pavements and stone-coloured buildings that cast long shadows. The asphalt and openness make it prime real estate for skateboarding – so that’s how Minding the Gap starts. Bing Liu films his friends, chiefly Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson, as they weave through a multistorey carpark, as they glide down an empty freeway bathed in the sunset, like the city belongs to them. All these streets, all these spaces, all up for grabs.
Finding a figurative room of one’s own is part of the adolescent experience: we occupy basements, backyards, garages, playgrounds intended for much younger children. Spread out in them, conquer them. We make them our own with graffiti, bottles of strong cider and loud peels of laughter, causing local families to cross the road. Part of it is the intrinsic teenage need to act out, sure, but sometimes there are poltergeists at home, and you do what you can to try and escape them.
I don’t think about my dad very often. He left when I was 14 and I haven’t spoken to him for eight years. But I settled in to watch Minding the Gap and there he was, in Bing’s grainy home video footage: this spectre with the same eyes as me. Across an ocean, I saw the similarities: a yearning to get out of a town that's threatening to drown you with its asphalt apathy; some heartbreak rooted deep in your bones; the nuclear family blown to pieces.
So here’s how it happened: My dad had a violent temper. When I was little, he’d hit me. When I was older, he just screamed. My parents fought a lot, then I got sick when I was 12. My dad didn’t believe that there was anything wrong with me, so my parents fought more. There was an incredibly ugly divorce two years later, and I was heartbroken for so long. I was so angry at myself for causing it. When you live with that kind of volatility at home, it’s second nature to try and get out – so Zack says, four minutes into the film: “I’ve always needed more out of life, more out of where I was.” My mum always said a similar thing about me. Your home becomes a prison, your shitty hometown becomes the enemy. If there’s a chance to get out, you seize it.
Bing, Zack and Keire’s shared trauma unites them. Violence looms in their respective homes for years, from Bing’s stepfather to Keire’s dad, who passed away when he was 16. While recalling his dad’s inflicted punishments for him as a child, he smiles uneasily: “Now they call it child abuse.” For years, the friends don’t talk about this thing they have in common but they can feel it – an unspoken knowledge that extends beyond their skating. It’s part of growing up, they assume. “Be a man!” says Zack, impersonating his father. “Some people got it worse than other people,” he shrugs. Generations of young men have been brought up without the words to express their emotions; in Minding the Gap, they’re still looking for the language.
At the start of the film, Zack is expecting a baby boy with his girlfriend Nina. “I want to give him every opportunity I can to succeed,” he says, while enrolling to get his high school diploma, working long hours at a roofing job to provide for their new family. But things fall apart, and the cycle starts again: snide arguments turn into blazing rows. Their friend Kyle records Nina screaming, “I’m going to fucking kill you” to Zack, and she recalls him throwing her into a coffee table. Bing confronts his friend about the violence towards Nina, gently but thoughtfully, and he says, by way of frustrated response: “You can’t hit women, but bitches need to get slapped sometimes.” When you grow up accepting violence as part of who you are and where you come from, you’re more likely to accept it as part of your future.
These cycles of abuse are insidious, but here’s what you learn as you get older: they aren’t a foregone conclusion. With some distance on the past, Bing sits his mother down for an interview, and asks why she stayed with his stepfather – a man who beat him, his half-brother Kent, and his mother regularly. Guilt is written across her face, spoken in her cracking voice. The camera demands a confrontation, unflinching, uncompromising. She recalls how she saw her own parents fight and vowed to never end up like them, but then admits, “I didn’t want to be alone.” She urges her son to not dwell on the past, but he has to, just for a little while. Bing’s ever-present camera forces them to confront their past, present and future; you have to face your trauma in order to move forward, to try to understand it, in order to grow.
Keire refuses to drown in his pain. He goes to the cemetery where his father is buried, and searches frantically for his grave. The euphoria he feels when he finally finds it, when he can finally see him again, feels like a form of closure. “If I stay here, I’m gonna get stuck here,” he says of Rockford. I know what he means, because I said that too. I got out alive from my shitty corner of the world, even when for a long time, it looked as though I might not.
Zack trades Rockford for Colorado, leaving Nina and his son Elliot, now a toddler, behind. He runs and hides by his own admission. “Some people turn their negative experiences into positive, powerful things,” he says. “But I’m not like that.” And maybe some people do, like Bing has with his filmmaking, like Keire does with his skating. But there is a positive, powerful thing right there in front of Zack: this tiny, remarkable kid he keeps running away from. It’s so much easier to run from your pain, to run from responsibility – let that flight instinct just kick straight in. So we drink, we smoke, we fuck the pain away. The problem is, you always sober up eventually.
The words “This device cures heartache” are scrawled on Keire’s skateboard, which was a hand-me-down from Zack – it’s a philosophy that Minding the Gap believes wholeheartedly. Skateboarding provides the release that words cannot; a limitless pursuit, with something soothing in the smooth scrape of wheels across concrete, something dangerous about a sport where you’re constantly colliding with hard ground. It’s a controllable pain, an outlet for all these frustrations, communal yet infinitely personal. Bing admits to Keire that he always felt a kinship, saw himself in him, because of where they both came from and what they’ve both been through. Keire smiles – this incredible, megawatt, brighter-than-sunshine smile, expresses a bashful sort of gratitude to his friend. Their found family might be fucked up, but it’s something that belongs to them.
Roger Ebert once described the medium of film as "a machine that generates empathy", and Minding the Gap feels like the best example of this – a work so heartbreakingly personal yet startlingly universal; for the fatherless, the motherless, for anyone who’s ever experienced a pain so deeply rooted, you can’t even start to figure out how to heal from it. Bing makes it look dreamlike, the way the past flows into the present, the way the camera tracks the graceful, swooping skateboards as they meander through the city. It slips and slides, just like our memories. Things fall in and out of focus, we put pieces together like a puzzle, we remember and we forget. Only at the end do we really start to see the full picture.
“There’s no escape,” Zack says to Bing, when he’s drunk and talking about all the ways he’s fucked up, lamenting the perceived inevitability of being overwhelmed by your own pain. Sometimes all we have is the stubborn will to survive, to be bigger than the demons we’re trying to outpace. When you skate you fall, and then you get back up. Even if you don’t skate, you do the same thing.
Hannah Strong (@goodjobliz) is the Associate Editor at Little White Lies. She is currently writing a book about film and raising one beautiful houseplant. She considers both of these things as equally important.