As recent studies concerning the sustainability of carving out a career in documentary filmmaking have made clear, it’s not a line of work for the faint of heart. But simultaneously, with more platforms and audiences hungry for content and new opportunities for funding and distribution emerging, perhaps it’s never been a better time for passionate creators to enter the fray. In this four-part series, Realscreen spotlights several directors who have taken the plunge and are breaking through with their early projects, including Bing Liu. Read Nanfu Wang’s profile here.
Major credit: Minding the Gap (2018)
When Bing Liu, director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Minding the Gap, reflects on how the acclaimed film has impacted his life, he sums up the situation in three words: “Validating, enthralling and disorienting.”
Liu’s 93-minute debut feature film depicts the lives of the director, an avid skateboarder, and his friends in their hometown of Rockford, Illinois. Minding the Gap follows these men over the span of 12 years as they navigate new responsibilities of adulthood and outside forces that threaten their long-standing friendships.
Despite picking up numerous accolades for Minding the Gap, including a Peabody Award, an IDA Documentary Award and a shout-out from former U.S. president Barack Obama, Liu says, for the most part, his life feels pretty much the same.
“I still live in the same apartment I have for the past five years with three friends,” Liu reveals. “I skate as much as I can and try to make the most of this crazy thing we call life.”
What was the funding process like for you with Minding the Gap?
It was just going to be a self-funded project until Kartemquin came on to co-produce in 2015. I applied to every grant possible and got turned down, sometimes twice. ‘POV’ and then ITVS came on in 2017 to allow us to finish the film — it was my second time applying to ITVS. Then later that year, Sundance came on to help us extend the edit; [that was] also my second time applying to Sundance.
What projects are you currently working on?
The one most close to being done is something I developed with Concordia [Studio] in early 2017 that I’m co-directing with Josh Altman, about [the idea of] confronting the past in order to move forward as it pertains to young men struggling with gun violence in Chicago.
What advice would you give to filmmakers trying to break into the doc-making industry?
“Industry” belies that there is a lot of money and resources in documentary, which, despite the growth of interest in the field recently, isn’t necessarily true. I freelanced as a camera assistant throughout my years of making my side projects. My advice would be to tell stories that inspire and sustain a fuel that can propel you beyond rejection, doubt, and a dearth of resources in the field. The most innovative and important stories are ones worth pouring your soul into. Do it for the right reasons.
This story first appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Realscreen Magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.