When the Oscar Documentary Feature shortlist came out recently, Hulu had double the reason to celebrate. Two of its films made the exclusive roster, a considerable achievement in a competitive environment where Netflix, HBO, PBS, National Geographic and other parties are all vying for the Academy’s favor.
“We don’t do it for the awards,” Maing says, “but awards are an amazing engine to get people to pay attention.”
The story he wanted viewers to pay attention to involves an alleged quota system within the New York Police Department that forces officers to keep up arrest and summons numbers or face a career-blunting backlash. The practical effect, Maing illustrates, is that cops go after the easiest targets—young people of color—issuing court summons and making arrests where no crimes have been committed.
“There are countless families, young people, who have been trying to fight for their lives and have been caught up in the criminal justice system,” the director insists. “One wrongful prosecution or falsified arrest can take years to extract yourself from and it’s an incredibly draconian and Orwellian nightmare that unfolds…You see in the film there’s tremendous pressure to take a plea deal once you are looking at a criminal summons or an arrest-able offense.”
Maing focuses much of his documentary on 12 NYPD officers who rebelled against the policy. Some wore recording devices to capture department brass demanding they produce arrest results—contradicting official denials that any such system exists.
“It is amazing how many New Yorkers have come out and expressed thanks and gratitude to all the participants in the film. It’s been an outpouring of support that exceeded our expectation,” Maing comments. “We’ve had a lot of cops come up to us and say how grateful they are for this film, for what it reveals that many cops have known is a reality and that most agree is happening on the job.”
Crime + Punishment has won multiple awards, including special jury prizes at Sundance and the Montclair Film Festival. It was named a top five documentary of the year by the National Board of Review, and the International Documentary Association gave Maing and the “NYPD 12” its Courage Under Fire Award for demonstrating “extraordinary courage in the pursuit of truth.”
Hulu’s other shortlisted documentary—Minding the Gap—has embarked on a similarly impressive awards run, collecting honors at the Sundance, Hot Docs, and Full Frame film festivals, among others. It won Best Feature Documentary at the IDA Awards and the IDA also gave Liu, who is just turning 30, a special honor recognizing him as a young talent on the rise.
“I’m so grateful to the IDA for the Emerging Filmmaker Award,” Liu told Deadline at the awards ceremony last month. “I just hope that I’m able to deserve it and earn it and show the documentary community, ‘Look, yeah, hopefully I will emerge and keep making films that have an impact.’”
Minding the Gap tells the emotionally-powerful story of Liu and two friends, who grew up in abusive households in Rockford, Illinois. To escape their difficult circumstances they gravitated toward skateboarding, which simultaneously offered both freedom and a measure of order they lacked at home.
“With skateboarding if you fall and you feel pain at least it makes sense, so in a way you learn to control your pain, and by extension, sometimes you can learn some sense of volition outside of skateboarding too and you can have a feeling of control over your life,” Liu explains. “Living a life of trauma and abuse in the household, you can lose a sense of meaning and skateboarding gives you a sense of meaning that’s just so self-created in many ways.”
The film has won praise for shedding light on the fraught emotional development common among young men as they come of age. Many grow up learning to suppress their feelings and vulnerabilities, a process that can leave them stunted or disposed to reproduce patterns of abuse.
“I think we sort of just brush off adolescent emotions—’Grow up,’ or ‘That’s so emo.’ But in reality, that time in your life formulates who you become,” Liu observes. “We become 20, we become 30, and all of a sudden we’re old and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute. How did I get here? Like, who am I and why do I feel this way? Why are these things happening in my life and why do I keep maybe following these cycles of choices?’ That all comes from a time in our life that oftentimes gets brushed aside too fast.”
Immediately after celebrating his 30th birthday, Liu will head to New York for a gala where Minding the Gap will be honored as the best documentary of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle. Minding the Gap marked his directorial debut, but he’s got another couple of films in the works, one fictional, the other nonfiction.
His upcoming documentary “is about the way that we access memory, in a personal and sort of communal sense, as it pertains to young men who experience gun violence in Chicago,” he says. “And then I’m doing a fiction project about how intimacy is formed as we come of age and how difficult it is to access in this day and age. So a lot of thematically similar themes I’m interested in.”