I’ve puzzled over the title of Minding the Gap (2018) since I first saw it. The documentary isn’t about the London Underground. It follows filmmaker Bing Liu and his friends Keire Johnson and Zach Mulligan as they come of age in small-town Illinois. Liu’s is a heavy film: about the indissoluble bonds of youth; about the risks of growing up and growing apart; about the patterns of domestic violence that disproportionately haunt the homes of the underclass; about masculinity’s many forms, the most toxic of which threaten the lives of women and children; about addictions and the ease with which they offer themselves as salves for the pain of setting aside childish things; about, finally, the friendships which see us through that mysterious passage to maturity. Liu manages these themes with an almost miraculous touch. For all the trauma his camera captures, physical and psychological alike, the documentary never falters under its own weight. It’s about joy just as much as pain.

First and foremost, though, it’s a movie about skateboarding. And for anyone who skates (or, like me, tried to skate once upon a time, before their inhibitions eclipsed their abilities) at least one shade of the title’s meaning is rather obvious: a “gap” is any distance between two surfaces—one usually higher than the other, like the landings at either end of a set of stairs— traversed by an ollie or shove-it or kickflip or some more complex trick. Nearly every skate video features several such gaps, not only to demonstrate the level of skill (and gall) required to clear them but also because of their prevalence in the urban landscapes these films more or less accidentally document. (Type “Carlsbad gap” into the YouTube search-bar to witness a truly legendary spot.) It’s fitting, then, that Liu would title his vérité inversion of the skate video genre with a nod to this universal venue of the sport’s glory and gore. Gaps are a permanent fixture in any skater’s list of favorite spots, and she lives or dies by her ability to clear them.

Which is why the title also lends itself, quite readily, to the more figural interpretation, according to which the “gap” to be minded isn’t some gnarly 10-stair but the no less treacherous transition from childhood to adulthood. That may be a self-evident reading; the moral sense is only one level up from the literal, after all. Even so, it shouldn’t suggest the film reduces skateboarding to an overwrought metaphor for adolescence or figures the skateboard itself as just another object of juvenile attachment. Instead, Minding the Gap shows skating, that paradoxically permanent counterculture, to be something like a long, ironic training in the sorts of virtues one might need to make the leap to a life of responsibility—courage, loyalty, trust, perseverance, love. Like every venture of moral formation, of course, skating is a profound risk. But this is why the sport’s unlikely virtues only lend themselves to friends, and why it’s nearly impossible to imagine a one-man skate video. Who cares if you cleared that gap if no one was there to see it? Bearing witness is what skating is all about.

That the film is able to paint such a sympathetic portrait of a pastime much maligned for its delinquency is due, in large part, to Liu’s self-awareness as one so formed by skating. Minding the Gap joins other documentaries from recent years, like Sandi Tan’s Shirkers (2018) and Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth (2018), which thread personal reflection through their stories, and so further blur that already unstable line between filmer and filmed. In each case, we’re invited to watch a narrative about the very events which led to the film’s production. Memoir-like, that is, these films give an account of their own coming to be. With Liu, we watch footage of his friends shot in adolescence blossom into the well-crafted camerawork of his young adulthood. Alongside these later scenes, the earlier tapes look less archival than inadvertent vérité, like they were intended for a documentary all along. Their inclusion in this film somehow makes them mean more than they otherwise would, brings out the truth in them, so that in spite of the temporal intervals his film traverses, the fits and starts of maturation he follows so faithfully, Liu tells an unexpectedly coherent narrative. A cinematic Bildungsroman, even, under the aspect of a true story.

All of which suggests yet another inflection of the title’s meaning, and something about the form of documentary film. For the “minding” of which the title speaks also strikes me as an apt description of the way this doc—any doc, for that matter—gathers up gaps of time into an intelligible sequence. Part of what makes Minding the Gap so great, in other words, is the exemplarity of its form. Liu’s movie demonstrates not just what documentary film can do but what it is: less a passive record of the long durée of lived experience than an active reshaping of time’s often senseless passage into some semblance of meaning. It’s a commonplace, of course, that documentaries manipulate whichever historical record they mean to treat, shoehorning the past into the perspective of the filmmaker’s present concerns. But Minding the Gap shows (doesn’t tell) why the grain of truth in that caricature is documentary’s surest wager—that a story told in retrospect is nonetheless truer than the slow accumulation of circumstance. Call it a transfiguration of the past, if you like; the sublation of history, if you’re so inclined.

After Liu’s film, I’m content to call it minding the gap.

No matter how vérité a documentary may seem, of course, the final product is no more a mimetic representation of “reality” than any other form of cinema. The documentarian’s camera still frames our view, focuses our attention, fixes our gaze upon a specific set of things to the benign neglect of others. Sound design amplifies our auditory purchase on the world, isolating specific bites of the blooming, buzzing confusion around us for otherwise inundated ears. More to the point, though, film extracts brief stretches of time from the long durée of lived experience and splices them together at more or less makeshift seams. Which is to say, the documentarian sections off something we naturally experience as an unbroken flow; she sows division and disjunction where there was once unity. Dismembered moments are the documentarian’s raw material, and the finely sharpened scalpel her favorite tool. It’s not without reason, after all, that her editing room is called “the cutting floor.” If filmmaking is tantamount to “sculpting in time,” as Tarkovsky once said, the documentarian’s studio is littered with scraps of history itself.

None of this, I hasten to add, implies anything untoward about the craft itself. Quite the contrary. Documentary film confects a higher form of unity than the temporal continuum from which its scenes are taken. Still, it does so by first passing through a moment of alienation from its subject, from life itself. Indeed, estrangement from the long durée of lived experience—the cutting and splicing of that which appears to us under the aspect of an unbroken succession—is film’s felix culpa, the happy fault that defines its essence. For this very process of extracting little stretches of time from the unceasing flux of time is coterminous with the filmmaker’s infusion of spirit into her work. What may seem at first blush like film’s chronic failure to capture the always-moving stream of life is actually what gives it form. Without this process of tailoring the fabric of spacetime it would make little sense to think of film as an artform in the first place. That break, in and from time’s merciless flow, is what we seek from film. No one goes to the movie theater looking for a livestream. The timeline’s bad infinity, the ceaseless doomscroll of chronometric time, the stock ticker’s eternal return—these are what we seek refuge from in film’s bounded form. What we want from movies is a chance to see ordinary time taken up and transfigured into something we can grasp.

“Art,” wrote Hegel in his characteristically overheated prose, “liberates the true content of phenomena from the pure appearance and deception of this bad, transitory world, and gives them a higher actuality, born of the spirit.” Artists, in other words, bestow shape on their raw material, invest it with the freedom of thought, rescue it from the mere sublimity of nature, grant it a share in beauty. The product of their labor forms a mediated unity: opposed to the immediate swarm of sense-perception, but not, for all that, untethered from the substance of things. It follows, on the properly Hegelian view, that the purpose of art is to give us back to ourselves in different form. The work of art offers us opportunity to see something about ourselves which we would otherwise miss were it not embodied in something alien and external to our egos. Which is to say, it’s a propaedeutic for precisely the sort of recognition we owe one another. For that which we’re responsible for recognizing in others is not the bundle of contingent facts that distinguishes them from us—their irreducible particularity, as some philosophers like to say—but the identity we share on the far side of those differences. Doing so requires something more like the skill of an artist than not: an ability to hold the welter of the world in abeyance just long enough to see the ideal version of that which stands before us, all the while recognizing that we ourselves are thereby responsible for seeing that form to fruition. We are one another’s midwives, as Socrates liked to say, and our identity depends on this capacity to include the other in our own self-regard. At its best, art not only teaches us how to do this difficult work but performs the sacred task itself.

Precisely because it occupies that liminal space between the nature of fact and the grace of fiction, documentary holds a privileged place in this moral economy of aesthetics. Since the genre’s earliest days, documentarians have known that their work could not claim to be a neutral record of “real life,” that the essence of their craft lies in lifting the entropy of ordinary time to the dignity of a story. They see more clearly than most that reality itself requires the contours of a narrative to unfurl its meaning; that the truth of something is only visible in retrospect, under the aspect of a mindful glance across the gaps of time by which it’s riven. Documentary gathers up these fragments into an intelligible form, forging new seams at the points of fracture like a piece of kintsugi pottery. The final product is no mimetic representation of reality, sure enough, but that doesn’t mean it’s less true.

To say, therefore, that Bing Liu is able to blend archival tape of his friends skating through their adolescence with vérité footage of them bailing into young adulthood is to make not only an aesthetic judgment about the film’s achievement as a piece of cinema but also a moral judgment about the coming-of-age story he so patiently tells. What Liu offers his friends, in other words, isn’t just an aesthetically pleasing slideshow of scenes from their past but a re-collection of their lives into a meaningful whole they could not possibly confect for themselves. It’s the sort of perspective only a friend’s eyes could afford. Which goes some length in explaining why the film feels so intimate at times—perhaps all the more so for capturing the friendships of emotionally timid young men. But, in true dialectical fashion, this intimacy is also precisely why the movie has such a universal appeal.

Like any given work of art, Liu’s documentary performs a twofold function: it not only gives form to the artist’s interior life for the artist himself but also puts that interior life on display for others to see as well. The upshot of every such attempt to make visible the invisible depths of a person—every act of creation—is mutual recognition. With documentary, in turn, what we’re given to see is not just the artist himself in objective form but also their way of seeing. Such that, finally, the substance of documentary film turns out to be its subject, in the double sense of the person behind the camera and the situation on the screen—both at once, because the moral claim of documentary is the identity it forges between them.

All of which goes some length in suggesting why the political purchase of the very best documentaries always exceeds the content of their log lines. No matter which social conflicts they treat—whether, in fact, they track recognizably social issues at all—the form of such films ensures that their political significance lies not merely in raising awareness. Because the purpose of documentary is not the curation of otherwise unknown facts, but the arrangement of that which lies open to view into a form that focuses our attention. It is a matter of learning to notice something hiding in plain sight, obscured not by its foreignness but familiarity. Documentary’s wager is that witnessing the familiar in a foreign guise—watching time torn asunder, sublated into a new shape—will teach us to recognize truth even when it appears under the aspect of falsity. Even, that is, when appearances overwhelm our mind’s ability to sort them. That this might be a salient political skill for our present moment should go without saying; that documentarians are uniquely capable of training our gaze should not. Once more, Minding the Gap is exemplary in this regard. The social stakes of a story about three friends skating through adolescence is not immediately clear. But learning to see the more deleterious habits of young men from the perspective of someone committed to situating those scenes of self-destruction in the context of an entire life might be. The effect is not a justification of those ruptures so much as a refusal to let those lapses be the last word on what their lives might mean. If this makes the film seem more like love’s work than work of art, it’s only because Liu’s movie is a high-water mark of what documentary film can be.

Image Attribution: Minding the Gap (2018), Directed by Bing Liu (Hulu).

Taylor Ross is a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Program of Religion at Duke University. He studies historical theology and the reception of late ancient texts in the modern period, with emphasis on the Greek patristic tradition.