Broken America

Ever since Donald Trump became the president of the United States, there has been a laser-like focus on what brought things to such a pass in one of the most powerful nations in the world. Bing Liu’s debut documentary, Minding The Gap, shows how broken the country is — and how it has always been.

While telling the stories about himself and his friends, Zack and Keire, in a sleepy town called Rockford in Illinois, Bing captures forgotten America in a kaleidoscopic fashion. Compiling footage over 12 years of the three of them skateboarding in the desolate streets of Rockford, Bing stumbles upon something bigger: the turmoil in the young lives being chronicled.

He masterfully combines skateboarding antics with stories that resonate far and wide. There’s Zack who became a father in his teens, doesn’t understand the responsibilities that come with fatherhood and constantly fights with his girlfriend over childcare. There’s Keire, a black person struggling with his racial identity, who misses his dead father despite his penchant for corporal punishment where his own son is concerned. There’s Bing himself, who is yet to shake free of the emotional scars inflicted by his stepfather on him and his Chinese-American mother.

Among the secondary characters is Nina, Zack’s tormented girlfriend, who has to grapple with adult problems at 18, as the father of her child is negligent and a borderline alcoholic. There’s also commentary that Bing silently provides by showing billboards that advertise everything from insurance for skateboarding injuries to planned parenting.

Bing doesn’t moralise anywhere but still manages to show how people change. His mother breaks down on camera when confronted about the cruelties inflicted by her new husband on her son. “If the camera helps you heal, so be it,” she exclaims.

Keire’s story is equally heartbreaking, even more so on camera. His disarming, buck-toothed smile has an elegiac element to it owing to an inattentive mother, a delinquent elder brother and a father who didn’t shy away from literally beating sense into him.

Bing’s proximity to his characters allows him to probe until they say something shattering. In the final minutes of the documentary, Zack admits that he might not be a good father after all. There’s a cautionary tale in his life story. Thrown into adulthood, he shirks his parenting responsibilities and moves away from the family.

There are offhand references to cops’ treatment of black people and there’s a heavy conversation between two of Keire’s friends where they discuss threadbare how white people never face persecution, while cops get trigger-happy at the sight of a black person. The documentary is a poster child for that famous quip: the personal is always political. The music, composed by Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero, displays verve and nuance. It soars giddily when the younger selves of the characters are having a ball at the skating park and it gets movingly sombre when they face their demons as adults.

The documentary is a timely reminder that America’s axis of evil in the 21st century is not Iran, Iraq or North Korea but is, instead, racism, an opioid crisis and its wayward youth. Kudos to Bing for making that rare hybrid in these troubled times: a guilt-fest and a misery-fest.

I watched this searing documentary on Hulu, a streaming platform for under-the-radar movies and TV shows that Netlix and Amazon tend to ignore. Having lived in the US the past few months, I have realised how many more choices Americans have when it comes to streaming services. Vudu is another such platform to check out both the latest and classic alternative world cinema. Vudu doesn’t require a subscription fee, so you only pay for what you rent or buy — a win-win situation.

Neither is available in India yet. But now that Walmart (Vudu’s owner) has acquired Flipkart and is entering India in a big way, let’s hope the streaming platform also finds its way to our homes. Anyway, hope springs eternal in our impoverished land for rarefied movie-watching.

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