Lotfy Nathan's "12 O'Clock Boys" is a riveting documentary that sheds light on a fascinating subculture. Shot on the streets of Baltimore, the documentary follows Pug, a young man that seeks to join the local gang. This gang is unique, for their anti-social behaviour comes in the form of motorbike acrobatics, riding down city streets while poppin' wheelies, creating a vertical profile like the hands on a clock.
This movie was a critical and audience favourite when it played the Hot Docs documentary festival last year, and the film is finally getting a limited theatrical run. Moviefone Canada had a chance to speak to the film's director about the influence of David Simon on the project, how he balanced being a filmmaker vs. being close to his subject, and how he views the documentary a year later.
Moviefone Canada: The way that you shoot Baltimore is eerily similar to the way David Simon has spent decades shooting Baltimore [in HBO TV series "The Wire"].
Lofty Nathan: Indeed, yeah. I hadn't seen "The Wire" for years into working on the film. I was shooting well before I had seen it, but obviously I had heard about it and when I saw it, I marathoned it. It was hugely informative. If anything, I realized that it didn't impact how I shot, but it impacted the whole concept of the film. "The Wire" created a global audience for Baltimore. Everybody now has an understanding of the context of the city, so there was a lot less that we had to say in the movie about the backdrop. People get it, all over the world, what Baltimore is.
I think "The Wire" is an incredibly accurate and beautifully done representation of that. If anything, it helped the explanation, helped to illustrate a very particular part of Baltimore because there was a context.
Remarkably, this is your first film. It started as a student project that got out of control?
That's definitely one way to put it. I was attending an art school in Baltimore, Maryland School of Art. I'm not originally from Baltimore. I was studying fine art and wanted to be a painter. I took a couple of video courses and chose these dirt bike riders that seemed mysterious to me, I had no context as to what they were about. That's hugely due to this bubble I was living in in Baltimore, in this semi-protected place. I had seen them around, here and there. My aim at first was to make this eight-minute piece. They were really receptive to being filmed, so that was motivation to keep going.
I think people had to be convinced that it was worthwhile, and that the subject matter and angle were sensitive and being figured out as the project went along. Even in the summer of 2012, I remember still toiling over whether it would be a feature or a short, but it kept growing. There's definitely a juncture where, especially with something like this, where there's this exotic urban subculture, where you can fall into making a web-content easy thing.
You have an incredibly charismatic character in Pug and you see the development of this person, not just a character, but an individual. How do documentarians make hard decisions about when to interfere and when not to interfere?
You mean balancing the ambition of making the movie against the moral quandaries of getting a kid hurt possibly?
You're following a guy that you care about, but you have to maintain some sort of distance, or it makes a terrible film.
Yeah, there's a danger of being too lukewarm and not really showing up to those moments that should be filmed if you're going to make a movie about it. You're absolutely right. So yeah, there was a lot of that and sometimes I could do it and sometimes I couldn't.
You see a raw, honest look at that time spent together, it was definitely difficult. Here and there, I think I was worried about Pug's safety. Ultimately, I had to embrace my understanding of it. Pug was so one-track-minded, he was obsessed with joining the group. His environment dictated a lot more than I did. With his mother, she ultimately made the call on policing him and I decided to move forward and film Pug's efforts against what his mother wanted. I just felt that that was happening around me anyway.
Do you think your filming influenced Pug's trajectory?
Certainly. I don't think there's any way around that. The filming was one thing, because I can honestly say it was still a pretty scrappy effort. It wasn't all that intimidating or daunting. It was oftentimes me with a friend. There were a few occasions when we were able to have a bigger crew, but it wasn't like there was some producer in a van and a sound guy. It was very organic.
But then of course there was the rollout of the film. The reception was a lot greater than I could have imagined. So surely that has an impact. It has an impact on me, it has an impact on all of the subjects, on everybody who was involved in the film. And that's something that could be gauged now and it could also be gauged in five years, it's difficult to say.
In the year since played at Hot Docs, how has your own view of the film changed?
I think I've been refreshed. The questions that people seem to ask and the takeaway seems to be what I would have hoped it would be, and that's great. I'm also pleased that there's such an interest in this problematic topic and it's not just taken at face value one way or the other. It's OK to show a frustrated situation to which there aren't necessarily answers.
What has been your most surprising reaction to the film?
Yes, that's the big thing. There has definitely been a huge skepticism and backlash against it for being exploitative, and also for some fictionalizing of the criminal element. Exploitation wasn't something I was thinking of when I made the movie. It's a scrappy, honest effort. It wasn't an in-and-out thing.
I can honestly say that I was living in that context for a while and really experiencing it, so I feel justified in telling that story. And that's ironic, because that question only really comes up in the middle of these film festivals where you have all kinds of people, miles away from that world, who haven't seen it. There's a guilt complex that a lot of people have as well. A mid-western guilt complex. They're threatened by something that isn't either apologetic or completely disregarding. It needs to be patronizing or it needs to be non-existent.
To that extent, there is a certain degree of exploitation, but I felt that it was collaborative. People who wanted to share, people who wanted to be there, people who wanted to be involved. And I was trying to open that up and provide a platform and also wanted to make a movie, so it's a huge collaboration, even with the subjects.
What does Pug think of the film, and how is he doing a year later?
Pug is in school. I have to check in with him this week about what he thinks about the film, but on the whole it seems like he's surprisingly unfazed by it. He's pretty set in his ways regardless, and I think it's hard to say what he thinks. I think he enjoys it, but he's focused on tangible things. Coco is excited about it and I think she appreciates that her story is being told, and she wants people to respond to that. The riders as a whole see that it's getting out there and I think that's important to them as well.
"12 O'Clock Boys" opens in limited release on January 31. Please check local listings for exact showtimes and theatres.