Lotfy Nathan is a young first time director who caught our attention with his bold documentary debut. Nathan, born in England to Egyptian parents, spent most of his childhood in the suburbs of Boston then moved to Baltimore to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art. He was majoring in painting when he decided to take a documentary class he says out “just out of curiosity.” How lucky we are that Nathan is curious, for out of that came his mesmerizing first feature-length film, THE 12 O’CLOCK BOYS, a perfect first entry onto the scene.
The film, which debuted at SXSW 2013, captures the culture of a group of urban dirt-bikers in Baltimore who perform incredibly dangerous stunts. All this happens at high speeds whilst manoeuvring traffic and evading the police, who are forbidden to chase the bikes for public safety. We are entered into this subculture through the voice and the life of a young boy named Pug. Growing up in the dangerous Westside neighbourhood of Baltimore he is surrounded by temptations and illegal activity. Pug is captivated by the bikers and longs to join their group, so named due to their signature stunt of lifting the bikes vertically like the hands of a clock. The coupling of Pug’s story and the enthralling footage of the bike pack results in a perfect blend of hard and soft. We experience the aesthetically sensational and the emotionally heartfelt, unified with an entrancing visual lyricism. Nathan captures the perfect tone for the subject matter. It acknowledges the danger and illegality whilst managing to highlight the beauty and skill. The film is not condoning illegal activities, it is simply laying out what happens and allows an insight into the feelings of freedom and exhilaration that these guys get from it.
The main takeaway of this film is the necessity of needing something to subscribe to. Documentary, as a genre, raises a lot of difficult questions for both filmmaker and audience. Difficult because in filming another culture you are exoticising them and holding them up to be judged in some way or another. It is a credit to Nathan that he presents this world with an acknowledgment of its adverse qualities whilst maintaining the dignity of the group. He displays the passion and excitement they all feel for it and how it gives them something to escape to. He is sensitive to the material, yet remains unapologetic.
Considering this film was initially a college project for Nathan it speaks volumes to the talent he possesses. Both his eye for a good story to follow and his masterful ability to translate this onto film. According to him he was very much learning how to create the film as he was going along. He did not know how long it would take or cost or what the story would be. All he knew was that there were a few initial interests and this spurred his desire to make this film. This is a testament to his talent as a documentarian, following and trusting his instincts and allowing the film to grow and develop over the course of production. He even got into a spot of legal trouble in the course of filming, receiving a court summons from the Baltimore police for filming illegal activity. Fortunately it was thrown out due to the moral grey area of the issue.
Lotfy, after receiving such positive feedback, has screened the film internationally, has received critical acclaim and snagged HBO’s emerging artist award. Nathan, like many others, has benefited from grassroots revenue sources. He talks about the effect that crowd funding has had on independent film, speaking of its importance, “it’s not just the finance; it’s the connections, the buzz, the publicity, the kind of built-in fan base that you create by using kickstarter.” We look forward to what this will allow Lotfy Nathan to create in the future. If his first time is anything to go by, we’re sure we can expect something surprising and beautiful.