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You’ve never seen a documentary quite like 12 O’ Clock Boys. Trust us. Filmmaker Lotfy Nathan follows Pug, a rambunctious, spirited teen who dreams of nothing but dirt-bikes as he desperately tries to get in with the 12 O’Clock Boys, a group of riders dominating the streets of Baltimore. Spanning the course of three years, we watch Pug go through hardships (like his older brother’s death) and develop into a young man, still hell-bent on proving himself worthy of membership into the club.
The film’s striking visual style mesmerized audiences at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival. Using the Phantom camera, Nathan and his team were able to capture the aero-balletic beauty of the 12 O’Clock Boys’ stunts and bike work, aided by slow motion and a haunting voiceover from Pug. We talked with the filmmaker about male adolescence, his two successful crowdfunding campaigns, and the laundry list of equipment that helped produce the film’s stunning cinematography.
Tribeca: You went to college practically right down the street from Druid Hill Park in Baltimore. What about the 12 O’ Clock Boys drew you to the group as the potential subject of a documentary?
Lotfy Nathan: I was struck by how little I knew about them. They were mysterious and exotic, which didn’t necessarily make them a good subject for a film [laughs]. I think as a documentarian, it’s almost more of an achievement if you can make a great story about something or someone that’s kind of mundane, but that wasn’t the case here. I was surprised that these men would share their stories with me. It was all just very exciting.
Tribeca: Was it difficult to gain access into their tight-knit community?
LN: No, surprisingly, it wasn’t. While I was a student, I just approached them slowly at Druid Hill Park with a camera. I just remember being really nervous. The first guys I approached weren’t even part of the 12 O’ Clock Boys. They just lived in the area right off North Avenue, and they were sharing this beat-up old dirt bike. One was teaching the others. Through them and a few others, I was able to gain access to the main group of riders.
Tribeca: Before this, I just associated Baltimore with John Waters. Now your film provides this fascinating peak into this rich city that I really had no idea existed.
LN: John Waters is great, and he did see the movie and liked it a lot. He invited me to his Christmas party last year. It was a lot of fun!
Tribeca: I noticed throughout the documentary and when people talk about the film they’re very careful not to say the word “gang” because the 12 O’Clock Boys are not that kind of organization. Is that stigma one you’ve had to correct through the process?
LN: Yeah, that’s been a tricky word. Technically… they’re a gang. A gang is a group collectively engaging in illegal activity, quite simply as I understand it. However, that’s just a dictionary definition. There are real gangs in Baltimore, but the 12 O’ Clock Boys are not one of them. If I had to describe them, I would say they are more like Robin Hood and the Merry Men. They’re pranksters. They’re friends with everybody and nobody at the same time.
We wanted those bikes to be the audience’s dream as well as Pug’s.
Tribeca: Do you remember your first interaction with Pug? When did you know you were going to devote the next four years of your life to following his development into a man and a rider?
LN: Before I met Pug, I was fishing for material. I originally looked at this film as a subculture portrait, which I thought seemed weak. However, when I was first introduced to Pug, I knew there was definitely something there. Plus, his family was really funny and colorful. They were all such characters, and I found myself really enjoying the footage I was shooting of them. It looked different.
Pug’s innocence and enthusiasm drew me in, and I knew, ultimately, it would draw in others too. He provided a great point of entry for an audience into the world of the 12’ O Clock Boys. He’s definitely the underdog. Plus, on the outside, he looks so sweet and vulnerable. He’s even lactose intolerant!
Tribeca: Obviously, Pug undergoes a huge change over the course of the documentary. Was it difficult to watch his transition from idealistic kid to hardened young adult with a sleeve of tattoos before his 16th birthday?
LN: Sometimes. Pug is the strong silent type so that was a worry in terms of measuring him up as a documentary subject. He didn’t provide too much exposition; he couldn’t speak very objectively about his feelings. I think it’s always a little sad to watch people grow up. Plus, he suffered a lot over the course of the film, and it was painful to watch him internalize everything. I think he had a lot of conversations with himself, but not necessarily with the camera.
Tribeca: From the documentary, it’s clear that you and Pug really developed a friendship over the course of filmmaking. Should there be a line between documentarian and subject?
LN: It’s strange. I think I will only be able to answer that years from now. I don’t know how our relationship will survive over time. I left Baltimore after I finished the film, but I still feel a great kinship with Pug and his family. The production felt really scrappy. I will always appreciate their patience, even when we were at Coco’s house. They were absolutely great. We didn’t know what we were doing—and I had no accountability—but they accepted us. I’ll always be grateful.
Tribeca: There are moments in the documentary when you can hear off camera voices. When Pug starts wandering into the street to watch the riders, you hear someone yell, “Move out of the street!”
LN: That’s a really good representation of what you’re talking about—it just kind of happened. You know, I was worried for him and that was the biggest kind of moral quandary in the process. I didn’t want to encourage Pug to do anything dangerous, but I just had to embrace the choices he made, regardless of my presence. He was obsessed, as you could see, with wanting to ride bikes. His dynamic with his mother dictated his ability to do that, not his interactions with me.
Tribeca: Today many youths seem so apathetic, so it was nice to see a kid so passionate about something.
LN: He is a young man with enthusiasm. He loves those bikes. Plus, he really is obsessed with animals. I know that seems a little out of place in the movie, but animals are another one of his big passions.
I think crowdfunding came at a really needed time. Independent film is changing shape.
Tribeca: I was really struck by Coco, Pug’s mother. While some could blame her for Pug’s recklessness, it’s clear she is doing the best she can, especially as a single mother of 6 in Baltimore. Why did you choose to leave that scene of her socializing at the bar in the film?
LN: If this movie had a love scene, that scene would be it. It’s one of my favorite parts of the movie. It’s right after the loss of her oldest son Tippa, and she’s talking about being a mother while grieving at the same time. She and Pug were both dealing with a huge loss.
I appreciate you saying she’s doing her best because I don’t think everybody takes it that way. It’s so easy to judge her. Context is a huge factor, of course, but I felt like leaving that scene in the film was very humanizing for her. It allowed audiences to see a different side of her. There were also moments that we could have left in the film that would have “redeemed” her even more, but I never thought that she needed it. I didn’t want to be apologetic about her as a person.
Tribeca: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a documentary as visually striking as 12 O’Clock Boys. What were your aesthetic goals while making this film?
LN: Well, I wanted all along to depict this sport as beautifully and dynamically as possible. I thought if the movie was going to be definitive about that subculture, I would have to really nail it. One of our producers was able to assist me in securing a Phantom camera—a crucial tool. I also had this need for the film to look good and to convey what it feels like to ride one of these bikes. With the slow motion shots, coupled with the editing, I think we achieved that. We also choose to include this voiceover from Pug and music by our composer, which was reminiscent of a boys choir. We wanted those bikes to be the audience’s dream as well as Pug’s.
Tribeca: Can you give me the laundry list of cameras that you used?
LN: Sony handycam, iPhone, a Nokia camera phone, 7D, 5D, Mark III, Sony HDV camera, phantom camera, Go Pro, Panasonic HVX, Panasonic HPX, Canon 3-Chip Camera, and a Sony 3-Chip camera. Phew! [laughs]
Tribeca: What was your favorite?
LN: Probably the 7D. It was harsh—the sound was terrible and there were so many problems with it—but I loved the image I would get. I also had a 28mm-35mm lens, which is really crappy, and a 50mm plastic prime lens. That’s what I shot most of the movie on.
Tribeca: Were there movies that provided inspiration for you in making this film?
LN: I liked Akira, especially the soundtrack. I would listen to it on the way to the editing office downtown. My editor, Thomas Niles, told me to watch The 400 Blows. I liked the Bicycle Thief. I liked Speed with Keanu Reeves. I liked action movies. Of course, I liked Hoop Dreams. Hoop Dreams is the documentary that opened up the documentary form to new ideas and visions.
I think as a documentarian, it’s almost more of an achievement if you can make a great story about something or someone that’s kind of mundane, but that wasn’t the case here.
Tribeca: 12 O’Clock Boys was made possible, in large part, by your two successful crowdfunding campaigns. How would the indie film landscape be different today if platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo didn’t exist?
LN: I think crowdfunding came at a really needed time. Independent film is changing shape and now there’s this little push that you can get from these grassroots revenue sources. Crowdfunding has opened up so many doors for filmmakers, myself included. And it’s not just the finance; it’s the connections, the buzz, the publicity, the kind of built-in fan base that you create by using Kickstarter, I think it’s incredible. It just allows people to make more movies.
Tribeca: Is there any lesson you took away from your crowdfunding experience you could share with other filmmakers?
LN: I would warn them that the process is difficult. We’ve been tied up with not being able to send out the digital downloads and stuff yet. One of the Kickstarters dates back to 2010, but we put in the fine print that we have to send the film out once it has been distributed and that it could take a while. As long as you’re confident that it’s worth the wait, your backers will understand. You have to keep those lines of communication open with your Kickstarter family.
Tribeca: If they have already donated their money, I think that Kickstarter backers don’t mind being patient when distribution plays a factor in the rewards process.
LN: Absolutely. I really hope that’s the case. I do feel terrible that it’s taking so long. Of course, anyone can understand that it’s important to get distribution. Distribution is always a good thing and I’m incredibly grateful to have it.