First-time feature Lotfy Nathan filmmaker spent a whopping five years completing his debut “12 O’Clock Boys.” Judging by the ecstactic reception the film received upon its debut at last year’s SXSW Film Festival, and at the Hot Docs Film Festival where Nathan won the HBO Emerging Artist Award, the effort was well worth it. The film is currently playing in select theaters and is available to buy here.
The gorgeously shot documentary centers on Pug, an outspoken adolescent growing up in Baltimore who looks up to the 12 O’Clock Boys of the title, a group of mostly young adult dirt bikers who perform stunts that infuriate the local police force and leave bystanders in awe. Obsessed with joining the crew, Pug does everything in his power to get their attention.
Indiewire called Nathan to discuss the making of the movie, watching Pug grow up over the course of the shoot, and whether his film glorifies his subject.
What inspired you to track these guys, especially Pug? How did you get to know Pug and his family?
It started really as a school project. I initially wanted to do a short piece on trying to find these guys. I thought that might speak on the social divide in Baltimore, or something along those lines, and it could be painted through this lens of trying to find this mythical bike group. To my surprise, they were really receptive to being filmed. Then it was just a matter of exchanging numbers, getting to know people, getting more involved. More people came on board to help and make the movie happen. Despite all that, I was still kind of fishing for meaning in the film, and getting at sort of at why the thing exists for the first year and a half or so. April 2010, I was fishing around and I was introduced to Pug and Coco and the family, and immediately I saw this kid who interested me besides being a dirtbike rider. The perfect thing is when you have somebody involved in that culture, but it’s just kind of on the backdrop of something that’s much more interesting in their own lives. I saw that in Pug right away. He had this expression on his face that was very vulnerable but also connectable. Surely enough, I think he provides a point of entry for audiences outside that community to identify. Which is very important, and I think that’s what you have to do if you want to make a personal story.
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He really toughens up over the course of the film. What was it like to witness his growth over the years? Did anything about his journey surprise you as a filmmaker?
Yeah, it certainly surprised me. I wasn’t intending to have that length of time with him and with the family. In retrospect, you see a sweet kid and a vulnerable, idealistic kid develop a tougher skin. Those are pivotal years for kids in a place like Baltimore, and for anyone his age. I think it was a good lesson for me to see the shapings of becoming a man, depending on where you are. For Pug, it was taken to an extreme because of his environment. You see that he’s conditioning himself quickly, or he’s responding quickly to the conditioning that’s happening around him. It’s happening to him, despite however long he wants to stay young. He kind of has to grow up in certain respects, and part of it is finding an outlet, a resource, a facility. As one who wants to rebel, who’s frustrated and maybe feels helpless sometimes in his community, he goes towards something that’s maybe renegade, that’s not necessarily conventional.
You no doubt must have also grown and changed over the course of making this film. How would you describe your own journey?
First of all, for me personally, there was the process of making a film, which is an experience in and of itself, and I like to think that I learned what it is to be in development and be in production of it, and all of the aftermath. I’m still learning that. But then, like I was saying about Pug, I think the biggest takeaway for me was seeing this old soul in such a little kid. You learn of this wariness that some people have, and this wisdom of death and how fragile life is that he had. It was a lesson for me, because I don’t have that, and a lot of people I know don’t have that either.
Were the cops in Baltimore supportive of your project?
They were perhaps wary, but by the end of it I was able to have interviews with the public affairs of the Baltimore Police Department, and with the Department of Transportation, with various city council officials, filming town hall meetings…the way that that goes is not so subjective. There’s a formula to what they have to say, and there’s this kind of script that they already have. It wasn’t very intimate, and I always wanted subjectivity in this. We tried to have that stuff in there, but it didn’t feel natural.
We posted our glowing review on our Facebook feed, and one man who saw the film in Boston posted a comment saying the film raises serous “ethical issues.” What do you say to people who leave the film with that kind of takeaway?
I think it’s warranted, it’s totally valid. People have different thresholds for wanting to see that kind of stuff. There’s an argument to be said of why you would even do it. But I think that films exist to also show that side. It’s been in debate with a lot of movies recently, glorifying depraved behavior. It’s not a new thing in movies or any kind of story. I just think that the perspective doesn’t need to frighten people so much. I think it’s problematic too, for what it’s worth. I think that audiences are smart and that they can see the underbelly of this whole thing. There’s a dark side to it that comes across in the movie.
I think because of the way I started this, because of the subject matter itself, I didn’t feel charged with the responsibility of making an issue film, per se. For me, the meaning was in the intimate dynamics, and I also would say that the perspective of the opposition is easy enough to access if you really want to know the rounded story. It’s obvious. It’s bad, it’s dangerous, it can kill people. We get it. I thought that it might be more valuable and more interesting to have an inside look at something you generally don’t get to see.