For Academy Award-nominated director, ‘UIC was the launch pad’

Bing Liu sitting with actors on the “Minding the Gap" set.

Chicago-based filmmaker and UIC alumnus Bing Liu (center) takes a break from shooting his documentary “Minding the Gap,” which centers on Zack Mulligan (left) and Keire Johnson. (Photo credit: Hulu)

When Bing Liu began at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2009, he envisioned a future where he would graduate and go on to be an English teacher in a classroom somewhere. But as Liu began taking more classes and learning from UIC professors who helped shape his voice, he started to reevaluate that goal.

After graduating summa cum laude with college honors and with high distinction in English in 2011, the Chinese immigrant began to look inward. He looked for influence where he grew up in Rockford and it was in its skateboarding community where he found the two main subjects of his documentary movie, and a vehicle that would allow him to tap into the story of his own life with his Chinese mother, a half-brother, and an abusive stepfather.

The movie, “Minding the Gap,” which is Liu’s feature documentary debut, has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for the 91st Academy Awards on Feb. 24. The film has garnered much success since Liu earned the Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Filmmaking at the film’s world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Since then, it has earned the Critic’s Choice Documentary Award for Best First Time Director, two Cinema Eye Honors for Outstanding Achievement in a Debut Feature Film, and an Outstanding Achievement in Editing nod among many other accolades.

The film, which premiered on Hulu and was made with Chicago-based Kartemquin Films, will have its national television debut on the PBS documentary series “POV” at 9 p.m. Feb. 18 on WTTW-TV, Channel 11.

On the day that the Oscar nominations were announced, Liu, who turned 30 this month, was getting over the flu and racing to finish his second feature — this time he focused his camera on the human toll of gun violence in Chicago — as he spoke about what “Minding the Gap,” skateboarding and UIC has meant to him.

UIC: First of all, congratulations on your nomination for the Academy Award. Did you ever imagine when you started your film that you would be up for the award? How does it make you feel?

LIU: I did not; it’s still hard to process. I pictured something that was out of the same bubble that I was making at the time. My previous short doc before, “Minding the Gap,” had gotten into some festivals and had won a festival so I was gravitating toward the festival film cycle. I just had my sights set on expanding in that audience.

UIC: The film follows you and the two main characters through several years and dealing with some very powerful issues like domestic violence. How did you come up with the idea, when did you start the film and when did you finally complete filming?

Bing Liu portrait posing

Bing Liu posing for his Academy Award-nominated documentary “Minding the Gap.” Photo by Taylor Jewell.

LIU: I started the film in 2012 when I was 23. I wanted to explore a lot of things. I was in my early 20s and I had all these questions, like a lot of people in their early 20s, about what it means to grow up and what it means to grow up in the shadow of a lot of unhealthy examples and a lot of unhealthy experiences. I went around the country and started exploring those questions through the skateboarding community that had been built up over the years. And a year in, I went back to Rockford and met this young kid named Keire and ended up following him and his buddy Zack over a number of years because they ended up having a really powerful story.  I was working on it up until our Sundance premiere in January 2018.

UIC: While some may think the movie is simply about skateboarding, it’s not really about that at all. What role does skateboarding play and what is intended by the name of the film, “Minding the Gap?”

LIU: Skateboarding is just the world in which the story takes place. I always think of skateboarding and the skateboarding world as a perfect example of what Karl Marx calls, ‘The Lumpenproletariat” these young people who are sort of on the fringes, who sort of feel disinvested and forgotten by larger society. I think that represents a lot of people outside of skateboarding and not just young people. In this day and age, there are a lot of young people who feel forgotten and not visible. It became a perfect community from which to tell these stories. As far as the title, “Minding The Gap,” it refers to the gap between so many things and the society. It’s race, class, gender and the gap between violence and discipline, the gap between childhood and adulthood. Like skateboarding, I think a lot of that is mental. A lot of skateboarders know that skateboarding is mostly mental, it’s up in your head, ‘If you can think it, then you can do it.’ I want to call attention, in my way, to the constructiveness of a lot of gaps in our society.

UIC: When were you at UIC and how was your time here?

LIU: I went to Rock Valley College, a community college in Rockford, for a year and a half and earned my associate’s degree in 2008. I went to UIC and earned my undergraduate degree in literature in 2011. It was great; I chose literature because I wanted to be an English teacher and I didn’t even realize that UIC had one of the preeminent English departments in the country. I was able to study under people who were teaching their own writings out of the Norton Anthology — it was pretty wild. David Schaafsma (associate professor, director of English education) taught a great class about young adult literature that helped me engage in and also be able to explore how people write about young people, the younger experience and the coming-of-age narrative. Helen Jun (associate professor, English and African American Studies) was able to help me make sense of my Asian-American identity in a major way for the first time. Out of her class, I made a short documentary as an alternative to a paper about two Vietnamese immigrants, which ended up winning a couple of awards. So many of those classes will forever shape the way I see the world.

UIC: How did your time at UIC help you to make the film and how did it lead to your work as a filmmaker?

LIU: Part of the pride that I took in going to UIC was…you take a look at the student population and it’s so much more representative I think of America than more elite, affluent schools. That speaks more toward my soul and my roots, the working class experience, the immigrant experience, and I think that has a lot to do with it. But a lot of it has to do with my chosen field of study which is literature but in a constructive, sort of theoretical sense. I just learned to deconstruct everything and I think that helped me to do these intense character studies in “Minding the Gap.”

At UIC, I was able to have a lot of room to bargain with professors. I remember having to take three weeks off to work on a TV pilot and it was with a journalism professor and instead of me coming to class for three weeks, she assigned me a book about the Supreme Court Justices around the Gore vs. Bush era. I just wrote a long paper about that and she accepted that in lieu of my three-week absence. Things like that were really helpful to allow me to be flexible and explore my career.

UIC: Can you give any advice or recommendations to other students at UIC about how to achieve their dreams?

LIU: Things like making a documentary film takes years. You have to choose something that you really do believe in, that you care about more than just getting the accolades or the notoriety. There has to be something in it that feeds something deep in your soul. Secondly, don’t ask for permission. Just do it. There is no course in the world that’s going to be the perfect course to help you achieve your dream. At a certain point, you just have to carve your own path.

UIC: Please finish this sentence: UIC for me was…

LIU: UIC was really the launch pad for my adult life. I’d just moved to Chicago; it was my first time paying rent on my own. My biological parents helped split the cost for tuition but everything else I just started paying for and I had to make it work. It was also a time of deep introspection. Although a lot of the courses I took were analysis of other people’s works, in learning to talk about language, I found out that a lot of my interest in that had to do with my own self-exploration. I think UIC gave me the language to be able to continue that journey until today.