Lotfy Nathan never figured he'd connect with the 12 O'clock Boys, a West Baltimore dirt-bike gang whose culture he was hoping to capture on film. At best, he figured to end up with a documentary about trying to track down the group, and having little luck at it.
Fortunately for Nathan, it didn't work out that way.
"It was surprising to me that I was able to sort-of breach the group," says Nathan, whose "12 O'clock Boys" will be getting its world premiere at the South by Southwest arts festival in Austin, Tex., next month. "Originally, I thought I would make a piece that was in search of the dirt-bike riders, that I thought could say something about the social divide in Baltimore in some way. But the riders were surprisingly receptive to being filmed."
At just over 72 minutes long, "12 O'clock Boys" presents a compelling, if often harrowing, look at the riders — mostly teenagers and older, predominantly male — who take their bikes to the streets, roaring away, popping wheelies (the riders' collective name comes from the desire to ride with their bikes at right angles to the pavement, straight-up 12 o'clock) and essentially taking over. Although what these young men are doing is illegal, the police are under orders not to use their cars to chase them (as a matter of public safety) and their parents have little say in the matter. The lure of the freedom and outlaw glamour they represent appears irresistible to the youngsters who idolize them.
Much of Nathan's film is told through the eyes of one of those aspiring bikers, a 13-year-old named Pug. Blunt and charismatic, speaking totally without filter, Pug makes no secret of his ambition to become a 12 O'clock Boy himself. The film follows him over the course of about two years, beginning in 2010, and offers a picture by turns exhilarating (especially to Pug) and sobering (to much of the audience).
"I felt Pug portrayed the reason that the whole group exists," Nathan says, "which was something that was lacking up until that time — sort of the 'why' of the whole thing. I wanted to show the context, what the culture was born out of."
The son of two physicians, Nathan was born in London and moved to Boston when he was 10 years old. He enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art seeing himself as a painter, but soon embraced a different medium.
"I was studying painting and took a couple of film courses," he says. "I found my best efforts were in film, so I decided to stick with it."
"12 O'clock Boys," which was partially financed through a $12,000 fund-raising effort on kickstarter.com, is his first film. Nathan says he needs another $30,000 for post-production work, including color correction, music licensing and sound mixing. He's already started a second Kickstarter campaign with that goal in mind; as of Friday, he'd raised just over $4,000.
But having his work accepted into the prestigious SXSW — one of only eight documentaries chosen, out of more than 900 submitted — suggests Nathan shifted his career path wisely.
"To have validation like this, from a festival like South by Southwest, and the huge amount of interest that has followed as a result, is really gratifying," he says.
Nathan, who became aware of the riders while a student at MICA (he graduated in 2009), stresses that he doesn't embrace the biker culture he so faithfully chronicles. But after being immersed in it for nearly five years, he's come to understand it.
"It wasn't that I became supportive of the group, per se," he says over the phone from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he has lived since September. "I certainly see the consequences. I've seen the danger and the recklessness of it. And it is illegal. But I also saw firsthand some of the resignation and the frustration in a lot of parts of Baltimore and the Inner City, the feeling of neglect.
"My feeling," he says, "is that any judgment can come from the audience. What I hope to provide is this kind-of insider perspective." But, he adds, considering what else a group of bored, frustrated and increasingly bitter teenagers could be doing on the streets of Baltimore, perhaps dirt-biking is "sort of the lesser of two evils."