Rebellion collides with discipline and passion to create a new and dangerous extreme sport on the streets of Baltimore. Motorized dirt bikes are essentially the poor man's motorcycle, and the vehicle of choice of the 12 O'Clock Boys, a pack of African-American riders renowned for popping wheelies so high, it's like they are pointing straight up, at 12 o'clock. Riding their dirt bikes on the streets is illegal. Travelling in packs of 50 to 100 bikers makes them a favorite target of the police and sensational evening news stories. But who are the people behind this wild pastime that taunts death and authority with every ride, every wheelie?
That is precisely what college student Lotfy Nathan set out to discover when he trained his lens on the crew, and in particular on a 12-year-old local named Pug, who desperately wanted to join the ranks of the 12 O'Clock Boys. Now 26, Nathan spent three years following Pug's story, talking to the boy, his single mother Coco, his riding mentor, and a crew of riders who find freedom in defiance.
I sat down with Nathan to discuss his film, which opens in limited release this Friday, and was stunned when he insisted his was not a social issues movie. He was forthcoming about what he wanted for his film, and how he feels that documentaries are unavoidably political and ultimately about shared exploitation. Plus he shared how "400 Blows" and "The Wire" relate to "12 O'Clock Boys".
FILM.COM: The subjects of your film have been described as in the media as "little bastards," "scumbags on dirt bikes" and viler names. What made you want to focus a film on them?
LOTFY NATHAN: Well that preface I think doesn't really--it's not really in the same camp as what I'm interested in. You know it became part of the context. And obviously that opposition and upheaval around it is really important. But at first the thing that made me want to make a film about them was just seeing them out in the street a few times over a few years. It's a kind of superficial first glance of these guys. I didn't have any context for them. I didn't know what they were about. And I thought it would be interesting to make a film about them and try to depict that action without the sensationalism.
How about you tell us where you were in your life when you came across the 12 O'Clock Boys?
I was attending school in Baltimore. I'm not originally from Baltimore. I was there for college. I wanted to be a painter, studying fine art. And I took a film class and that's literally how this started, a documentary production class. So my aim at first was to make an eight-minute piece. So I started this when I was maybe 22. I wasn't necessarily thinking of the social issue and ideas of exploitation or sensationalizing crime. You know that stuff kind of seeped in and was a conversation as it was going. It really started as a school project at the age of 22.
When you first took your camera to where the 12 O'Clock Boys were meeting, what was their reaction to you?
To my surprise, they were very receptive to being filmed. I was nervous. I didn't know anything about them, like I said. I remember just approaching them rather awkwardly on a Sunday afternoon once I found out where they meet up…I walked up to these three guys at the end of the baseball diamond, just slowly with my video camera. It was a matter of eye contact, like they seemed kind of friendly. You see a friendly face, and you know I just walked up and started filming them. And then we exchanged phones numbers. I met up with those guys later and the same thing continued. I just developed more and more confidence in filming.
Were you aware when you first approached them that some of the group had been posting sort-of bragging videos of their own stunts online?
No I wasn’t aware of that. That's something I learned about afterwards. So then that speaks to why they were receptive to being filmed. These guys want to show off. They had already established this YouTube celebrity ambition.
The fact that they were already posting their videos on YouTube, did that make you less concerned that what your were filming might be used as evidence against them?
It did make me less concerned, yeah. Because ultimately I knew that these riders--anyone that wanted to be filmed--was already putting themselves out there. But yeah that was a concern I had all along. I don't necessarily think it's right: the whole practice of riding dirt bikes in the street. But I also didn't want to get a whole group of people busted all on account of this movie. So that was a concern. But "Central Park Five" came out as this movie was being produced. I think that actually ended up defining some policy. There was an attempt to subpoena that footage, and it didn't work. So it was declared that documentary footage can't necessarily been subpoenaed, which makes a difference.
We spoke a little bit about this, but what did you feel your responsibility was to your subjects, both Pug and his family and the 12 O'Clock Boys?
(After a long pause) That's a difficult question. I mean it's just personal, you know. I think you don't want to lie about who somebody is. You don't want to pass unreasonable judgment on anyone. I felt I was responsible for that. But at the same time, there's a kind of shared understanding with somebody that lets you film them for a long time and lets you into their lives in the name of making a movie, where you're all kind of exploiting, you know? You're all exploiting something. They are kind of exploiting their own stories in conveying them to you. And you're doing the same, obviously. So, that's something I'm aware of. And I don't think people should be apologetic about it necessarily. But if you trust your ethics, then I don't think it's a problem.
How did you meet Pug?
I met Pug in April of 2010. I had just been sort of fishing around for material up until then. It started, like I said, as a school project. I had this kind of subculture portrait at large. The subject matter was exotic enough and kind of interesting, it's edgy for people: inner-city, new urban sport, the way that hip hop is or something. But I didn't want to make just a subculture thing. So when I was introduced to Pug I saw something that interested me totally aside from dirt bikes, and that was an interesting kid. And even his angle within the bikes, he's a sort of underdog, aspiring. There's an agenda there. It was very clear that he wanted to join the group. He also had this kind of weariness in his expression and the things that he said that I thought was very interesting. At first, it seems really charming right?
But you learn that it's out of a lot of experience, and harsh experience at a really young age. It's what makes kids say, "People these days!" It kind of reminds me of the kid from "400 Blows." Have you seen that? (I nodded.) So my editor had me watch that while we were cutting and I loved that kid as well. I think there's something similar.
Pug seems to have a deep self-awareness, yet he pursues this thing that is incredibly dangerous. Did you personally connect to his quest?
I understood that there was a need for a reactionary device. Something had to be a reaction. His way of edifying himself and growing needed to be in some kind of avenue of rebellion. One because he is at that age, and two because of where's living. I saw that there were options that could be much worse. It was conflicted for me as well, and I think that’s conveyed in the movie. In a way, he's doing something--he was reporting to it the way someone would a sport. You show up to that thing kind of sober and ready and it's about focus, and discipline and mentorship. But at the same time it's dangerous. But I saw that there were all these other options for him. Right outside his house there are drug dealers. He sees that those people have the most means out of anybody; it's all too tempting. I think that it kind of described why the group exists as a whole, which is kind of too embrace death, embrace how fragile their lives are, how delicate they are. Then having this sort of dance with death, I think they are aware of what they are getting into.
In the film, it seems you start off trying to be an objective documentarian about this world. But as the film goes on, we see you more become a part of Pug's family.
Yeah, that's interesting. Yeah.
Well, there's a scene where Pug is robbed, and the camera falls from his face awkwardly away. Watching it I had a thought--are you moving to embrace him or calm him down or something?
Not embrace him! But --
I don't mean to make it sound weird--
No, I know, I know. I think that's an interesting editorial decision that Thomas, our editor, made, to allow for that drift. I think there is a sort of more sort of less passive and removed towards the end, you know? And I think that's just the progression of time. I think in a lot of senses the movie becomes a lot less--what's the opposite of passive?
I guess aggressive or active?
Active, yeah. A little more activated. I think you're right. That it kind of starts a little more objective and removed. That's just inevitable, you develop relationships with people. The audience hopefully develops relationships with people.
Okay. Were you at all worried that you having a camera on Pug while he is pursuing this was at all stoking his fire for doing this?
I was worried about that. That was probably the biggest moral quandary in the whole movie. And Pug obviously--the movie is meant to embody the youth joining, and coming from a kind of hurt place. And certainly he was that for me to, you know? So if something had happened to him, I don't know what I would do. Especially caused by the bikes. I was torn about it all the time, but ultimately I had to embrace something that I really believed in, which is that his dynamic and his environment really took precedent. It wasn't me to steer him. Nor would he let me. His mother's word was gospel; it was that dynamic. He grew up in this world where he was obsessed with the bikes before I even showed up. He's just so one-tracked minded to the point where the filming got in the way sometimes of him just wanting to be there. So that's something I trusted. But it's hard to say you know? There's the shooting, and then there's also the perception of the movie. That’s really hard for somebody to gage. I can't know what that'll amount to.
In your op-ed in the NY Times, you mentioned how this neighborhood, that is impoverished that is made up of mostly African Americans, is really near an affluent white neighborhood. Yet in the film, you choose not to address that aspect of Baltimore. Can you tell me about that decision?
Yeah. Um…(long pause) I don't know. How would you have put that in there?
I'm just curious because in the op-ed piece it seemed important to you to bring it up.
The context, yeah yeah.
Yeah. Having read that after watching the film, I was just surprised that was something you chose not to include in the film. So, I was just curious about that decision.
I don't know how that would go in the film, really. It's easy to say--you mean to show the other side?
No! Not necessarily. I was surprise to learn in the op-ed piece--I forget how you put it exactly--but it was something along the lines of 'this neighborhood is very close to another neighborhood that is basically completely different in its socio-economics'--
I didn't mean to say that they try their best to isolate themselves because there are good people in that more affluent town--not more affluent town, that privileged section. They make a decision to live in Baltimore; they know where they are. They are not bad people.
I was just more curious--
Why the context isn't shown? It's a small movie. I didn't want to kind of get into illustrating the social climate per se. I really was just going towards what I was interested in. You know I think that there's a lot of expectation to address that kind stuff in documentaries, to show this kind of holistic thing with films that should exist. There should be this small story and then this big thing at large. I think people also come equipped with a context of Baltimore and their own understanding, and of you know poor urban culture in general. And I think that's enough really. You know I never wanted to make a social issue thing anyways.
For you, if the film isn't about social issues, what is it about?
It's about personal relationships and the personal connections to this rebellion. But no, it's not about social issues. I think I would have done it about a different subject honestly, if it was about social issues, something that warrants a call to action. Because I don't know what the call to action would be for this. I don't think that I should be charged with the responsibility of offering a call to action in making a movie anyway.
Okay. I'm a little surprised because the movie talks so much about how the media is representing these young men, and then you're giving this other side to it. I'm surprised it didn't occur to you as being a social commentary.
I get that it is inherently. It's the question if politics should be involved in art and if art is inherently political. I believe that it is. But I didn't necessarily--I think that gets taken too far. I think people need it spelled out too much within the work. That's why for example with the NY Times piece, it's fine to talk about it conversation, but I don't think it needs to be in the work. I think it's inherent and you don't need be hit over the head with that kind of stuff either. Even the opposition--the perspective of the opposition, let alone the more affluent areas--that only needs to be in there so much as well. I don't think there needs to be equal and opposite arguments. The voices don't need to be as loud as each other--
Oh, I didn't mean to suggest that!
Right, because you weren't talking about police, you were talking about just the layout of the city.
Because as someone who doesn't know a lot about Baltimore, that was an aspect of the city I was surprised by reading the Times piece that I wasn't aware of watching the film.
Yeah, I'm trying to think--in "The Wire" there isn't quite…
Can I admit I'm the only idiot on earth who hasn't seen "The Wire"?
No, it's not idiotic to have not seen "The Wire," but a lot of people have and that provides a lot of context for Baltimore. For a movie this size, you can actually kind of surf a bit on the understanding that's been gained out of "The Wire." It's provided a global audience an awareness of Baltimore's layout. But even "The Wire" doesn't have--at least I don't think--they don't have people just doing their day-to-day in Bolton Hill. Because that's not what he was getting at, that's not what he was exploring.
I'm sorry, I haven't seen "The Wire" so I can't follow you on this.
But either way, I think the short answer is: it's harder--I just think that's probably the most interesting thing I had to offer was that access. So that's what I was focusing on.
So the rest was just secondary and you didn't feel the need to include it?
There were points where you and your crew where actually in the midst of the pack as they were riding around. What was that like for you?
That was a lot of things. It was really an adrenaline rush. I guess I was looking to see how that felt and convey how that felt so I went and experienced it. It was amazing. It's a real rush. You get a little bit of a glimpse of what they get out of it. But at the same time it was wild. It was volcanic. Sometimes I was just thinking, 'What the hell is going on?' But I didn't felt unsafe.
Was there ever a point in making the film where you felt personally at risk?
Occasionally being in the wrong neighborhood with a camera and letting it fall on something that might be transpiring in corners. But generally you could say, "Making a movie about the dirt bike riders" and that was generally a pass. It's like everybody in the hood kind of knew about dirt bike riders. It's like somebody's cousin, somebody's brother, "Oh I have a friend that does that." It's a sport for them, so they all respect it as such. Like those guys are athletes and they even kind of sponsor them.
I know the film was shot over three years. How often did you actually go and see Pug and Coco and their family?
So, 2010, I met Pug April 4th or April 1st. And I went there almost every day. Sometimes a couple times a day. I was there a lot. Then Tibba (Pug's older brother) died in early September of that year. I moved to New York, went back for a few days in the winter. Thought the movie was done, went back to Baltimore begrudgingly the next summer. Spent nearly every day with the family again. So it was every day, every other day in the summers, 2010-2012.
So you said at one point you thought the film was done, how did you end up coming up with the ending you have? I don't want you to give away what happens, but it's an interesting conclusion.
I hope it kind of speaks for itself, you know? And it's meant to be suggestive. It's meant to be a little murky. And that's one thing I'd like to just leave to speak for itself. But in terms of finishing the movie and knowing it was done. That was really hard to figure out. I think you've made movie, you know it takes longer than you think. You probably have a better sense of wrapping up. But I had no idea, and I was really impatient. Every year I thought it was done, I expected it to be finished. I was done putting in the effort. But I would end up going back inevitably to Baltimore, something would bring me back there and I would keep shooting. Then it was a relationship built with an editor, Thomas Niles, who did incredible work to really make sense of all this material, about 300 hours at that point.
Where's Pug now?
Pug is in the same place. He's in school, still itching to be a part of the pack, and a closer part of the pack. He's more interested in girls now.
Is that killing his momentum a little bit with the pack now that girls are around?
I think maybe, yeah. I think so.
Because we see a little bit of that within the film--
With the girls teasing him?
Yeah, where you see a little bit of that interest but he's not ready to kind of--
Yeah, you're absolutely right. It's kind of what precedes courtship is the years of boys and girls fighting each other.
We see him risking his life and not thinking twice about it, but then these girls are giggling and he speeds away on his bike.
Now he wants to hang out with girls.
Is he at all nervous about his big theatrical debut?
I don't think he's nervous. He plays it pretty cool regardless. He was surprisingly unfazed about the premiere of the movie. I was more nervous than he was. He's just kind of like enjoys attention, but I don't know if he's like--it's really hard to say. He was always difficult to read.
Yeah, he seems to have this front of bravado, then he occasionally says these things that are really haunting. At one point you asked him about why it had to be today that he has to see the pack, it's when things are getting a little bit dicey, and he says, "Tomorrow is a day not promised. You can die any minute."
I mean, you're clearly in the car with him, but you're not on camera. What was that moment like for you? For a child to just throw something out like that?
It was a lesson. He taught me a lot. Like I said Pug has this weariness and wisdom that you almost wish he didn't have at that age. A lot of people my age and older don't have that still, but he was forced to at a really young age. So I have so much respect for him for being an intelligent, capable young man despite all they stuff he was up against. It's sad but it's also just shows this resilience that he has to have, this understanding that you have to have. You get betrayed by the world, I think. There's a lot of death, and there's more death in the inner city. And he sees that.
I remember even his dog was hit by a car one night in front of him. It was awful. And him and his siblings had to move through that in a matter of minutes and just get back to their lives. He went back upstairs to play PlayStation and he said, "It's always something." It was brutal. This dog went flying 30 feet in front of us. Let me just explain what happened very fast. So, Pug's bicycle, a couple of kids from the block took it and were riding it around in front of the house. Coco was calling to them to come back. Pug and his siblings ran outside to go ask for the bike back, and the dog ran out as they opened the door and just got nailed by a car. So because they were trying to get his bicycle back the dog ran outside and just got completely creamed. And then again and again and again in front of anybody. And then they just went back up stairs.
He seems to never want to allow himself to cry on camera. Was that a challenge you found in filming a teenage boy, who is totally fine with you recording him risking his life but doesn't want to be seen crying?
Yeah, it's interesting. That's something he was conditioning himself for when I first met him. You could still see this sweetness/vulnerability on his face, but he was trying to speak like he was 20 years older.
Was there anything you shot that he said, "Don't use that"?
The girls teasing him.
And you did!
Well, it was a bit of a compromise. He gets it. It's okay to be the underdog.
Pug the underdog.
"12 O'Clock Boys" opens in limited theatrical release on Friday, January 31st.