For director Lotfy Nathan, what began as an art school project has flourished into an acclaimed documentary, which has garnered praise from both critics and audience members alike. Set on the streets of Baltimore, Nathan’s 12 O’Clock Boys takes you inside one of the city’s most notorious subcultures—the world of urban dirt biking. Beginning his work on the film in 2008, Nathan told me that, “At first I was into the sensational presence of the group as whole,” but later realized that the best point of entry into their world was through the eyes of a young boy named Pug, who himself was fascinated and immersed in the inner-city biking culture from a young age. Spanning three years, we see both Pug’s evolution, as well as a distinctive and visceral look into both the fatal dangers and the wholesome attraction of the controversial past time—and its effect on one family’s life.
Last week, I got the chance to speak with Nathan about him introduction to the 12 O’Clock Boys, what makes for a compelling narrative, and the process of bringing the documentary to life.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background as a filmmaker?
Well, this is my first film. I was studying fine art in Baltimore and I wanted to be a painter. So I come at film as a failed artist. No, I’m being silly, I don’t think it’s failed. I was studying fine art at first and this started as a school project. I was attending a really conceptually-driven art institution, and it was easy to entertain any kind of platform. So I was taking a video class there, and applying an art background was my start with this. I tried to employ that while making the film as well, but I don’t have a formal background in filmmaking.
So how did you happen upon this idea for a feature—did you know a lot about the 12 O’Clock Boys? How far away was your original intent than from when you first set out?
I was taking a documentary course and I had seen these guys around a few times. I was really living in a bubble in Baltimore—I’m not from there originally—and I thought it would be an interesting thing to try and follow, and they were really open to being filmed— to my surprise. From there it was really staggered and everything was really uncertain up until 2012; I didn’t know that it was going to be a feature. Initially the effort was to make a student eight-minute short film, but that served as proof of concept for myself and I started to get the help of friends and peers. So as more people got involved and lent their talents and came onboard, it was more validated—and that’s how it grew. We got into IFP in 2009 in New York, which was right out of college, so I was able to show that eight-minute piece to members of the industry and to other directors and filmmakers, and that was really exciting. So there were all these points of validation along the way and that was just the start. There were mentors that came in and it was an insecure process but it became crystalized as time went on with the help of an amazing editor and amazing producer.
Did you know you wanted to focus on one central character and one family? Were you looking for that and what was it about Pug that appealed to you?
At first I was into the sensational presence of the group as whole, but I realized that I didn’t just want to make a subculture portrait—that’s not enough nowadays. I’ve seen plenty of movies, but I didn’t realize you really have to have a central character; you have to have somebody that the audience can connect with. And I think the way to gage that is if you’re connecting with that person as well, and if you’re engaged with the mundane everyday moments around that person’s life. So I found that with Pug in 2010 after about a year of just fishing for material and it became something different. But even then it was still uncertain; I didn’t know exactly how he would play into it. He doesn’t necessarily offer the same exposition that’s expected out of documentary subjects, he kind of had a wall up—which is tricky, but ultimately I think there was some expression and transparency on his face that was very telling and poetic.
How was building his trust and the trust of the community? Did you have any push back when it came to what you were filming?
I don’t think that my presence was all that intimidating. I didn’t have a full camera crew; it would usually just be me with a friend. Very rarely was it more than two people. I was just kind of there and because it did start off as such a small thing, our comfort grew as the film grew. If anything, also, Coco for example, was so open to sharing her story. Within 30 seconds of meeting her, literally, she was talking about her life and her story—her family is so colorful and extroverted. Also the nature of the dirt bike riders as a whole is one of performance. So I think that really helped too, to have these subjects that are already documenting themselves and wanted to get their point across. They had been doing it in a certain capacity in this sort of instant gratification YouTube one off thing. Some people weren’t really sure what I was doing filming this long form thing where I wasn’t really releasing stuff. The wheelman Steven, he kind of got it, I think he had a lot of faith in what was being made based on our conversations, and despite not having done that before, I think he had an intuition with sharing and re-sharing and allowing these moments where nothing is happening to also transpire.
Had you seen the old footage and videos on YouTube?
I’d only seen them on the street while I was living in Baltimore, maybe three times over the first few years while I was in school. So approaching them, I didn’t really do any research, just asked around on the street who these guys were. As soon as I stepped out of my neighborhood, people seemed to know where they congregated, so I just showed and up. Then there was a long, awkward moment of walking up to them across this baseball diamond in the park, and you know, like I said, they were receptive to being filmed. It was during the production that I educated myself. So when I looked on YouTube, I saw Steven and his brother’s YouTube page and they were getting this really inside coverage. So I contacted them and met them at a car wash in East Baltimore and got in their truck, and that’s how the really dynamic action stuff got started. And then I went deeper, I learned about the information act, requesting closed case files from the Baltimore police, figured out who to contact to try to get interviews, things like that.
It’s interesting because although riding is so dangerous, it’s the almost the wholesome alternative to life working on the street.
Yeah, I think it’s challenging and that’s why it’s interesting. It doesn’t sit well, and it doesn’t necessarily sit well with me. But it is something to acknowledge that there is context behind everything and there are lesser offenses where somebody really needs to express themselves through rebellion, especially kids—and knowing that they have these other options where it could be so much worse. Pug literally had dealers right outside of his house in West Baltimore, and he was temped and seduced by a much deeper criminal world from a young age. He was seeing the most successful people on his block were selling crack. So this becomes a wholesome sport at that point, and it’s like he wants to get on the Varsity team. It’s kind of an edifying thing, but it has to be unconventional and it has to be renegade, because he’s fighting against a very treacherous and very difficult environment that he’s being brought up in.
It was pretty amazing to see how Pug and his family death with death and kind of resilience they had. Were you effected by that both personally and as a filmmaker?
Yeah, and it’s remarkable. If I learned anything personally while filming this, it was that kind of resilience and the turn around of grieving and mourning and carrying on in that environment—it’s so fast. It’s daunting and it’s kind of unsettling, but at the same time it’s a requirement. So that was really incredible. And it’s not that it doesn’t stay, but life and death is a different concept.
What do you hope the audience walks away with after seeing this and inhabiting these lives for the time you’ve permitted?
It’s amazing that so many people seem to want to know about it. It was our ambition all along, everyone that was involved—from the subjects wanting to tell their stories to the crew—there were so many first time talents. And people were doing things with just the faith of making a good project were able to see that their work is being seen. It’s really incredible. It’s nice that people want to know the story and they want to be challenged by the question of crime and context and understand. It’s a success that people connect with Pug and seem to identity with Pug. I think identifying is the only way to really understand a place that you’re not from, and Pug is a charming point of entry for people from a world away.
And you’re not seeing him fully grown or set in his ideas—we’re watching him at the most formidable period of his life. Do you still regularly keep in contact with he and his family?
Yeah I do. I’m going to see Pug and Coco this week. They’re coming to New York for a special screening, and then on Friday we’ll all get together for the Baltimore theatrical release. I keep in touch more with Coco than Pug because there’s a lot of stuff to talk about with how the movie’s been going.
How do they feel about the film now seeing it completed?
I think they appreciate it. There’s a lot of stuff to register: what the roll out means, managing our expectations on what it means for people’s futures, and the thing to realize that it’s still a small movie and ultimately. I think there’s an appreciation for the story being told in a way that works. And it’s important that it spoke to the riders first and foremost. Showing it to the founders and getting their blessing and from Coco and the family as well, it’s important that they feel it’s real and authentic.