Not only was filmmaker Lotfy Nathan an outsider to the culture he was seeking to chronicle in his debut documentary feature 12 O’Clock Boys (opening in Toronto and select U.S. cities this Friday, following extremely well received screenings last year at SXSW and HotDocs), but he wasn’t even originally from the city it takes place in. The London and Boston area native stumbled upon his look into inner city dirt bike riding culture in Baltimore quite innocuously as an art student at the Maryland Institute College of art.
It’s surprising not only that Nathan hasn’t made a feature before, but also just how eloquently he captures the vibes and rhythms of Baltimore life without having actually lived there his entire life. Here, he follows around a group of predominantly African American city residents of various ages and backgrounds that make up the titular motor club (so named after being able to do a wheelie so perfectly the vehicle stands straight up like the hands of a clock). Every weekend these riders take to the streets en masse as a release to themselves, but to many other local residents, they’re seen as a threat and a menace. With a very contentious relationship to local law enforcement (who often refuse to chase riders out of safety concerns unless they do something to piss them off), they occupy a moral grey area.
Definitely not a “gang” in the traditional sense, but still a sometimes visible danger to public safety, Nathan takes a look at the phenomenon (which has grown from just a few riders in its inception decades earlier to over a hundred today) predominantly through the eyes of Pug, a tenacious 13-year old boy who wants nothing more than to ride alongside the rest of the crew every weekend. Filming for three years from 2010 to 2012, Nathan creates a finely balanced character study, a portrait of a sometimes derided subculture, and a larger view of the city that he lived in all with great nuance and a lack of judgement.
We spoke with Nathan over the phone yesterday while he was doing press in New York to talk about what being an outsider brought to the film, interacting with his subjects, and what it’s like to get a police summons for filming illegal behaviour.
Dork Shelf: You were going to school in Baltimore, and you weren’t originally from there, so as an artist, what was it about the city of Baltimore that inspired you while you were there to go beyond your schooling and make a film about something that’s so integrated into the cultural fabric of this adopted city?
Lotfy Nathan: Well, that’s a good question. With Baltimore, I think it’s kind of a combination of the city itself, which is a city where if you live there it kind of feels like anything goes, and also it doesn’t really ask that much in terms of being able to sustain yourself while you’re there. It’s pretty easy to get by in Baltimore. I think you can very easily entertain the idea of making a movie in and about the city quite easily there. And also, being at this art school I was able to get a good, rounded education and have the skills and resources to begin a film while I was there.
DS: It’s interesting because this is a documentary because the level of trust that you have to gain from the people within this culture might not be the same as with other documentaries. Putting the legalities aside, these are people who are very honest about what they do, and in a lot of ways they aren’t any different from more classical extreme sports enthusiasts like skateboarders or snowboarders who would make tapes of their stunts. But thanks to recent crackdowns against these riders, the younger riders seem a bit brash and open about their exploits than some of the older guys who have been doing this for a while are generally quieter. Do you think your age and making this film as a young man was kind of an ace in the hole for you in terms of getting some of the younger riders to open up?
LN: Absolutely, yes. You’re young and you’re curious about the whole thing, and when you show a genuine curiosity towards something someone is doing, then that brings about a lot more acceptance. I don’t think to them it was a very threatening operation that I was running when it came to approaching the riders.
And like you said, the younger ones are a lot more plucky, for the most part. The older guys are a little more wary. They’ve been around the block. But in both cases it was easy to find things with everyone that they wanted to share.
DS: With Pug you have to show a larger arc of a him as a person, but it’s really something to watch how over three years how he’s able to develop this real sense of swagger and an intense sense of confidence. Was that strange to watch, and do you think that you being there with a camera and filming his life in any way might have contributed to that? Because to be that young and wanting to already be a bit of a local rock star, having a camera crew following you certainly has to be a boost to the ego.
LN: It was strange to see, and I think that really was the trajectory that he was on regardless. I caught him at a really pivotal age for kids. They’re constantly redefining themselves at that age. (As for the camera), that’s hard to say. It wasn’t a huge operation, so it wasn’t like it was this glamorous thing to follow him around. It was usually just me, or me and someone else, or for some of the larger scenes with a lot of the riders together we had a small crew. But I can see what you’re saying, and it’s really hard for me to define what that role really means. It could have had an effect, and obviously it’s happening now.
DS: You’re doing this in a very artistic manner, and I can see where critics of these riders can say you are glorifying what these people are doing, which works for the film since you’re telling it from Pug’s romantic kind of perspective. What kind of role ultimately has your film played into the discussion of what the city wants to do with these riders?
LN: I really don’t know. I don’t even know when or if there’s a discussion that’s even really taking place on a greater scale. (laughs) I stayed in Baltimore for the shooting, and during that time I was in the process of moving to New York, but I would always come back for the shooting. Then the movie was cut in New York, but I always kept that relationship to Baltimore and I find myself going back there quite frequently.
DS: When you are shooting scenes in the film like the part where a rider kind of gives a heel kick to a cruiser and a chase starts, what’s your own feeling of personal safety? Because you know these riders and they trust you, but the cops don’t know you or what you’re trying to accomplish.
LN: Exactly. That was problematic. That was a really thing to navigate. Given the range of what my role was on the film and my situation, I could explain it to them as a project that I was doing and it was something that I did and had proof that I was doing. I could explain that, and there’s a certain innocence that comes with that that was generally understood. At the end of it there was some sort of validation in the real world, so that was something I could use. There was obviously a grey area, though. It was hard to vouch for yourself to the police because all they see is that you’re filming and in a lot of ways possibly glorifying the group or something like that.
I actually did at one point get a court summons for filming illegal activity. But the police are not allowed to subpoena documentary footage, and I think the policy on that was redefined while I was making this by the making of The Central Park Five. It’s funny because Steven [a veteran rider turned lookout for the group] and I both got nabbed for that. It was frustrating because in those moments you see the fine line and the acceptance of journalism and documentary and how much or how little of a license you have with that. If I were a more established filmmaker than I was, it probably never would have even been an issue. Ultimately, it was fine, but that was a hell of a time.
DS: The movie starts off immediately with the voice of former Baltimore police commissioner and talk show host Ed Norris giving this diatribe about the bikers and how they need to be stopped, and while he’s summing up the general problem with these riders, he’s doing it in a really harsh and kind of hateful way. How did you make the decision to open up the film with a public figure speaking out about the crew?
LN: Yeah, I think it’s important because a lot of people do think like that in Baltimore. I don’t think that Ed Norris is a bad guy. He’s trying to talk about the situation, and I don’t think he necessarily comes across as bad, but obviously the words are harsh. One of the riders told me about that recording, and I thought it was something that really needed to be in the film, because that speaks of a perspective that a lot of people have.