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Masculinity, violence and empathy with Minding the Gap director Bing Liu

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After my first viewing of Bing Liu’s documentary debut, Minding the Gap, I came home and told my housemate's friend he would’ve liked the film. He asked what it was about and I replied that it focuses on skateboarding and violence. He said, “f*ck yeah, violence!” I qualified my remark by saying it was about domestic abuse, then he was silent.

Liu’s film follows Rockford locals Keire, Zack and Bing himself navigating those traditionally silent spaces: the gap between discipline and domestic abuse, adolescence and adulthood, fathers and sons and the shared experiences that men rarely talk about.

Amanda Barbour: I was really shocked to read that Zack actually likes the film. Why do you think he was able to recognise it as a good film, without being personally offended that it shows him in a negative light?

Bing Liu: I think the fact that I put myself in the film with Keire helped. I don’t think they (Zack and Keire) had any idea that I had gone through what I had gone through, but also that I was going to put skin in the game in the film as well.

These are guys, and women, who just don’t feel like their lives matter enough for other people to care about it. I think a part of that has to do with him (and other people in the film as well, to certain degrees) not feeling like their emotions are ever validated. It’s sort of like, what keeps emotions from being properly processed and part of your everyday life. So seeing 90 minutes of himself on screen, and having his inner life being validated, meant a lot to him.

I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but that’s what I sensed from talking to him after the film. I just went in and tried to find the most honest way to try and get at this. In some way, he must see it as an honest portrayal.

A girl was murdered in Melbourne recently, and I’ve been struggling to understand how perpetrators of domestic violence and violence against women can actually do that. Obviously, you think about masculinity a lot. Would you be able to provide any context on what propels people to act that way?

I think violence against women happens on a spectrum. There are perpetrators of domestic violence and it’s about control and domination and that’s the end goal. Then I think there is more situational violence that happens, and I feel that Zack’s falls more on that end of the spectrum. Where he just doesn’t know how to deal with conflict, or a relationship that just isn’t working out, which leads to violence as an option. An option that he can rationalise.

It’s such a hard question because there are so many different factors: what you see in your household, who you have as role models…

Millions of dollars have been poured into researching this, so I don’t expect you to have all of the answers. I just wanted your perspective on that.

Right before I started the documentary, I was travelling the country to do these interviews with skateboarders. But I wanted to understand my stepfather.

I was at a point where I sort of just felt bad for him, because I understood him to be this man that just wanted power and control so bad that it felt like a prison. I went to visit his daughters, who are both about 10 years older than me and live in the (San Francisco) Bay area. One of them told me all of these things, how he had done these really terrible things to her, but also all of these really insightful things like how he was diagnosed with manic depressive disorder and they did electroshock therapy on him in the 70s.

Oh, wow.

He was an alcoholic for a really long time. Then she was like, you can’t choose your parents; you just have to love them. Then I went to the other daughter and asked her the same things; she just said nope, I don’t remember anything. She had blocked it all out, never spoken to him again and never wanted to speak to him again. I feel that everybody has a very different path. But at the end of the day, you choose what you do and you have to take responsibility for your volition, right?

Zack ends up being abusive, there are always factors that lead him up to that point but at the end of the day violence is violence and it’s wrong. I think, to a certain extent, people are more than their worst trait. Or their worst mistakes. For practical purposes, I was looking at ways to treat the causes as well as shedding light on the symptoms of this really complex issue of what we know as domestic violence.

From what I’ve seen of domestic violence, the way I would profile someone that does that is they tend to have a lot of insecurities. It stems from cowardice: predators don’t look for someone of equal stature or self-esteem, they’ll look for someone vulnerable.

Would you agree? Do you think that your stepfather was a deeply insecure man, or would you profile him differently?

Yes, I think at his heart he is. That’s the irony of it: a lot of people who are really insecure can’t wear it on the surface, or talk about it, or be comfortable in having it as an emotion or a trait. It’s like the need to hide that is a need that needs to be done at all costs. A lot of the time that leads to hurting other people that might threaten that insecurity.

Do you think that he ever felt guilty about what he did, to you and your mum?

Yes, I think that’s a part of the cycle of violence. There’s the build-up, then there’s the violent act and then the heavy pleading and sorrow. The apologies come from a place of guilt. Or at least a part of it does.

Do you think it comes from a place of self-hate as well?

I think it’s a guilt that’s tied into self-hate. It’s guilt about who you are, as a person, and what you’ve done. Guilt, as an emotion, is where you feel really low about yourself. So, I think it’s all connected.

In Alex Garland’s movie Annihilation, he makes a distinction between suicide and self-destruction. One of the characters says that self-destruction isn’t a choice, it’s an impulse.

Does this contextualise why skateboarders get into that momentum of propelling themselves towards really risky situations, getting hurt a lot, but continuing to do it anyway?

I think it’s a symptom of a deeper-rooted problem that in a major way comes from the constructed-ness of what it means to be a man. But I don’t think that people are born with an impulse to self-destruct.

I see it more from a perspective of control; that’s the model with which I think about why skateboarders do the things that they do. That it has to do with how much control you feel that you have as a child, whether you’re physically abused or verbally abused or whatever, I think children just want to explore and play and learn on their own.

When they feel that they’re not getting enough of that, they sort of intuitively find ways to get their own forms of control. Sometimes that control can turn towards their control of pain. If they don’t feel like they can control pain perhaps at home, they’ll find ways to control pain on their own bodies in other ways. I see it less as self-destruction and suicide, it’s more to do with control.

Minding the Gap is playing in our cinemas until 5 February 2019.

Amanda Barbour is a film critic, translator and artistic director of   intersectional feminist film festival: FEM&IST Films.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.