Approaches from Insiders and Outsiders

By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Posted on July 11, 2018

In Conversation with Erika Cohn and Bing Liu

Illuminating the human condition: it’s a theme that pervades some of the most effective documentaries. Getting there has multiple paths and as a filmmaker, you have baggage you bring. For The Judge, filmmaker Erika Cohn was a complete outsider in her story and had to build trust with strangers. Bing Liu, on the other hand, mined his own community in Minding the Gap, approaching it from deep inside, even as far as building the trust of his family. Different takes on the same goal, telling authentic stories that haven’t been told before. We chatted with both filmmakers during the SF Film Festival about their experiences behind the camera and afterward. 

The Judge tells the story of Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first female judge in Middle East's Shari'a courts, highlighting her struggles and triumphs as a professional, a woman, and a mother.

In terms of obtaining permission to film in court, Cohn believes she had an upper hand. "I do believe that I was able to get access in part because of my gender, in conjunction with our team’s non-threatening presence, and compact camera kit," she says. "I feel like women are often underestimated, and in this case, it may have benefited me."

Ironically, one of the trickiest parts of filming was not in the courts, but in Kholoud's home, with her family. Cohn says that, while she was a guest there, the children were constantly seeking her attention, wanting to play with her, and would sometimes jostle the camera.

"One of my favorite family scenes in the film is when she's cooking with her husband. Cinematographer Amber Fares did an awesome job capturing their little glances/interactions. Her presence and her cinematic eye really helped free me up to direct the scene/observe and also run interference with her kids who wanted my full attention," says Cohn.

Now that the film is finished, there was one audience member more important than anyone else:  Kholoud herself. Happily, Cohn reports that "she loves the film and is very proud of it."

For Bing Liu, the challenge was different. Minding the Gap featured himself and his best skateboarding friends interacting, growing, and changing over the course of ten years.

"Because Zack, Keire, Nina, and my brother all allowed me to capture so much of their lives, I felt like I had a responsibility, especially in doing a film that delves this deeply into such private parts of them, to paint as full of a picture as I could of their lives. So that means including the sunny and the stormy," he says. "When I sat everyone down to show them the fine cut before we picture locked — something we did to make sure we didn't grossly misrepresent them — it was an emotional rollercoaster for everyone. But in the end Keire, Zack, and Nina all appreciated that they had their stories told in an honest and holistic way."

For his film, Bing Liu had both a gift and a challenge with his enormous wealth of footage, an entire decade's worth. To keep track of it, he came up with a clever solution.

"I made a detailed footage log in a spreadsheet to catalogue the footage as I ingested; this was invaluable especially as the footage began to balloon onto larger and larger hard drives over the years," he says. "I was cutting the film as I was filming as well, so in a way I was assembling the footage in chronological order and slowly shaping the story as I went along. When my co-editor Josh Altman came on last summer he had me cut Zack's story on its own and Keire's story on its own. Then we wove them together and drew my story out as a sort of camera-as-character."

Another challenge Bing Liu faced was after he decided that he himself would be a character in the film, and he realized he would need to interview his mother about their difficult past.

"I just called her up and said I wanted to interview her about my stepfather. She agreed and I hired a couple friends to film. The interview itself was incredibly difficult. I had tried having conversations like that with my mom in the past, but it usually got cut short by the difficulty of years of unresolved trauma. So the camera and the setup somehow allowed for a longer, more in-depth talk. The camera has always been, in one way or another, an emotional shield for me. But in that interview she pierced through that shield," he says.

A more joyous aspect of the movie is the beautiful, exhilarating skate footage. "I spent a year learning how to shoot with my Canon 5D, a 16-35mm lens, and a Glidecam," Bing Liu says. "I would run on foot like a Steadicam operator, which allowed me to go up and down stairs, through gravel, and weave and dance along with skateboarders without being limited by a big fancy rig or even a skateboard."

2018 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 4 ­ 17, 2018. Courtesy of Pamela Gentile, SFFILM.

Finally, there's the title, Minding the Gap, which usually refers to a warning sign posted in the London tube. Bing Liu says it's a "multi-faceted, open-to-interpretation" title. "Certainly the London tube saying was considered as one of those connotations. I think public transit evokes a sense of urban movement, which I liked. Then there's the gap between fathers and sons, men and woman, childhood and adulthood. And of course there are literal gaps in skateboarding that skaters skate over," he says.

At press time, Bing Liu's film hadn't yet shown in the SF Film Festival, but he says "I've heard such amazing things about the festival that I can't wait to experience it myself. My friends who used to live in San Francisco used to clear their schedule for two weeks every year to attend."

He says he hasn't yet seen The Judge but he's "really excited" to catch it and as many other films as his schedule will allow.

As for Cohn, she says "the SF Film Festival is incredible! The entire team of programmers, staff and volunteers really go out of their way to make the festival experience special. Typically film festivals are in a more central location. What's remarkable about SF FILM is that they have screenings all over the Bay Area. One night we had a packed screening at the Roxie in the mission, then the next night we're packed in Berkeley!"

2018 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 4 ­ 17, 2018. Courtesy of Pamela Gentile, SFFILM.

Has she seen Minding the Gap? "Yes! It's incredible and Bing is beyond brilliant," Cohn says. "I'm very excited to follow Minding the Gap's release and Bing as a filmmaker. Congrats to him and to ITVS for supporting incredible works of art."

The Judge will premiere on the upcoming season of Independent Lens on PBS. Minding the Gap will premiere on the upcoming season of POV on PBS. 

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