Lotfy Nathan spent some five years putting together his film about West Baltimore's dirt-bike culture. Now, with national acclaim for "12 O'clock Boys" promising to turn it into one of the year's breakout documentaries after a February premiere at the South by Southwest arts festival in Austin, Texas, he's happily basking in the acclaim.
"The reception in Austin was incredible," Nathan said last week from Toronto, where the film was being shown at the annual Hot Docs festival. "It was more than I could have asked for."
This week, a distribution deal with independent film distributors Oscilloscope Laboratories safely in hand, the Maryland Institute College of Art-educated Nathan is bringing his film home. "12 O'Clock Boys" will get its local premiere at this week's Maryland Film Festival, where it's already one of the hottest tickets.
The 75-minute documentary follows a young boy, Pug, as he tries to become a member of the dirt bike gang that gives Nathan's film its title. Undecided on whether these bikers are criminals, adventurers or just bored kids looking for something to do, "12 O'clock Boys" offers insight without judgment, noting repeatedly that actions have consequences, but leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether one totally counterbalances the other.
As he was preparing a return to Baltimore for the film's local premiere, we asked Nathan about nerves, what people are seeing in his film and how he thinks viewers in Baltimore will react to this depiction of their hometown.
What was opening night like? Were you nervous?
The first screening? Yes. I was most definitely nervous. We had a sales agent and a publicist telling you what kinds of people were in the audience, you have all sorts of members of the industry and press going to these screenings. But the response was great. It was a relief.
What do you think it is about the film that people are identifying with? Why are they embracing it?
There seem to be a few different appeals, and that's why you get quite a diverse crowd. There definitely are some who are just excited about the culture, which is similar to the skateboard culture — that sort of audience. Then you get the "Wire" audience. There also seems to be an audience that wants to engage in this dialogue about the seduction of criminality.
There is an audience that takes it as exciting and celebratory, and there is an audience that takes it with concern and sort of with dread — but at the same time finds it to be a compelling film.
So for some people it's exciting, for some people it's entertaining, for some people it's a cautionary tale?
Yes, I would say that some people say afterward, 'That was awesome,' those people who think it was really exciting. Then there are people who feel like it's really sad, and that the undertones are really grim.
What's your take?
I think it is a cautionary tale. Dirt-bikers are not as simple as just being a reaction [to the environment]. It's wrought with consequence and danger. I think the best that one can do, in trying to show this story, is to show why this kind of rebellion exists — to kind of broaden the understanding of that impulse. I don't think it necessarily answers any questions.
This is going to be your first time showing the film in Baltimore. What do you anticipate?
I anticipate a very divided audience. I think that you've got your most polarized audience in Baltimore, obviously. You've got the people who feel victimized by the group, and feel that they're a terror. Then you've got the riders themselves ... But that's not really the [intent] of the film, to have issues and politics involved. It's kind of beyond me, how this is going to go over in Baltimore.
Are you expecting any of the 12 O'clock Boys to show up?
Yes, I do expect many of the film's subjects to be there. I'm also imagining that some of the city administration would be there.
It could be a real interesting mix of an audience.
Right. I can only imagine what the Q-and-A will be like.
You've been working on this for five years?
Almost five years — four and a half years. The most concerted period was 2010-2012.
Is it turning out to be worth it?
Absolutely. It was a struggle, and it still is. The independent film effort is a difficult one, and the reward is in the reception, most of all.
If you go
"12 O'clock Boys" will be screened twice at this week's Maryland Film Festival: 7 p.m. Friday at MICA's Brown Center, 1301 W. Mount Royal Ave., and 5 p.m. Sunday at the Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St. Tickets are $10. Information: 410-752-8083 or mdfilmfest.com.