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Interview: Lotfy Nathan (12 O’Clock Boys)

Lotfy Nathan seems to have quite the bright future ahead of him with his bold docu debut, 12 O’Clock Boys, finding it’s world premiere in the liberal heart of Texas at this year’s SXSW and making the rounds at the usual non-fiction festivals following there after. The 26 year-old’s feature started as a college class project, but expanded into a feature length shoot spanning several years as the story of Pug and his 12 O’Clock dirt biking idols unfolded before his eyes. The success of the film has brought much attention his way, but he’s not done with schooling just yet, as he’s recently been accepted to the Columbia University MFA Film Program.

I caught up with the young filmmaker just north of the border at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. Still fresh to the PR parade, Nathan seemed a bit on edge, defensive even, but not for his work of art, but for his beloved real life subjects. We spoke about working with and representing the young subjects in his film along with many other topics, but, above all else, in speaking with him you get the sense that he is still getting use to portraying the lives of real people. There is a careful balance between their true lives and what snippets of their lives a filmmaker chooses to include in their work, and in his protected weariness you get the sense that he’s still coming to terms with this fact. It’s a valiant notion for a fledgling director, but hopefully he can settle in soon. Our conversation follows in full.

Jordan Smith: So I saw the film a couple weeks ago actually – I really, really like it. I know you are from New York right?
Lofty Nathan: No, not originally, I just lived there for about three months. I was born in England, my parents are Egyptian, I moved and lived in the suburbs of Boston from ages ten to eighteen and then I moved to Baltimore just for school – for college.

Smith: So I am assuming you just heard about the biking?
Nathan: Yeah you can see them around the periphery. While I was in school there, I was studying painting at the time, I was taking a class in documentary just out of curiosity. Seeing these guys around and no one in the bubble that I lived in Baltimore knew what they were about, so I thought it would be interesting to try to pursue them, not expecting that to yield results. I thought they were sort of mythical, like bandits – like pirates or something. My initial interest was really purely just the sensationalism of it and superficial excitement.

Smith: Did it start as a school project and develop from there? How did you end up meeting the actual…
Nathan: Meeting the guys? So like I said, I just approached them at the park where they show up and they were really receptive to being filmed. So we just started exchanging phone numbers, just started hanging out and I remember going on Youtube and looking at who was shooting the most dynamic action coverage. It was this guy Steven, so I wrote to Steven and we met at the carwash in Baltimore and got in his car getting this amazing material.

Smith: He is the guy you ran around in the truck with, right? There is some incredible footage where you are in the truck with him.
Nathan: Yeah, there were some moments there, pretty hairy sometimes. That was exciting but only to an end obviously, to a certain end. Because you know ultimately, I was getting this action material like I was saying, getting an exposition on the subculture – but that isn’t enough obviously to be a film. Then I met Pug in 2010 while I was still fishing around for material, for some kind of character that struck me. I actually didn’t even know if I was looking for a character or main subject per say. I met this kid, after meeting those people the first day, I was introduced to this younger kid in another part of town who wanted to start helping with the movie – Larry Jackson.

Let me just give you the breakdown of how I met Pug – so I met these two guys in their early 20s, Marty and Austin at the park. They were playing around with this kind of beat up bike and then I went to their house, their hangout in West Baltimore and met this kid that was about to graduate high school Larry Jackson, who was like their apprentice or something. They were really cool guys. Then Larry ended up going to the school that I was at MICA – as a freshmen. I remember he was really obsessed with the camera when I showed up there – like that part of town. Then that couple of years we were shooting together occasionally, the movie and he knows people around town because he’s from Baltimore. So he introduced me to this guy Shank, who is kind of like the man about town. Then Shank said you have to go see this kid Pug – he is really nice on a dirt-bike. So we walked five blocks from Shank’s house to Pug’s house after talking with Shank and his mom for a little bit and I saw Pug just kind of buzzing up and down the street, like a miniature of all the other riders. It kind of immediately clicked.

Smith: Other than his riding ability, was he immediately very personable?
Nathan: He wasn’t exactly personable, he was a shy little kid and the things he would say were mostly just emulating the other dirt-bike riders, like the adults in his life. But he does have this vulnerability and transparency on his face which I think is really telling. That against the things that he says – was just this great range of a kid about to become a man, about to have to define himself, what kind of man he’s going to be. Throughout the thing he looks – you can see in his face this vulnerability, this innocence.

Smith: There is a scene where the cops show up and there are a whole bunch of dirt-bike riders, when he is still pretty young and they just speed off and he is just in awe, looking around like “oh my”…
Nathan: He is seriously obsessed – he is really obsessed. He doesn’t care that much about the movie actually, which is funny. You would think a kid might get phased by it, but he is really just focused on what he likes.

Smith: There are plenty of moments in the movie where you give him plenty of opportunity to just hog the camera, or exude confidence as much as a little kid imitating his adult mentors can. But you would think that he might develop an ego after seeing the movie, that’s interesting..
Nathan: Maybe that is just in front of me.

Smith: So you have been filming him for 3 years?
Nathan: Yeah, almost 3 years. I met him April 2010.

Smith: Did you have to speak with Coco – like “I’m kind of interesting in filming you guys” or…
Nathan: Coco was connecting the dots before I even knew what I was doing, she was like “okay, you are making a reality show about us” and I was thinking – no it’s not a reality show. But sure, it is a reality show.

Smith: Basically, in long form. She seems to me like the enigma of the whole movie. She has the large part where she is dealing with all of these horrible issues – her son dies and her other son is on a rampage around the city and she has no control. At the same time it seems like she should have a better grip on things, but you capture how chaotic it can be in that situation.
Nathan: All I can say about that is, she has it extremely difficult. She has a lot of kids, very little support and she is really trying. Then there is a lot of stuff that isn’t in there – her getting her nursing degree. Within a year after Tipa died she was taking classes – CPR and now works as a nurse or nurse practitioner. Either way, she is really trying.

Smith: How did you decide to cut down stuff like that, that shows them in a better light?
Nathan: Ultimately all of those decisions, if they felt like they were and this goes for the whole thing – like the argument for and against the bikes in the movie, the redeeming stuff and issue driven stuff that is supposed to ensure an audience that it is being thought of – I wanted to leave that out if it didn’t feel natural. I was primarily concerned with something to follow, something engaging. It is not an issue story. Then you can argue that it is not fair to Coco, because this is the way that people are seeing her ultimately, so put it in there – but it was just an intuitive process. The editing is kind of rough around the edges as well, the whole thing is.

Smith: That is the nature of the medium.
Nathan: There is really no winning with that anyway – with putting that extra stuff in, because people are going to think what they’re going to think, but Coco has it very hard and she is trying her best.

Smith: When you were filming it I know you interviewed a lot of the city officials and there is a scene where you interview a cop. I had read that you had done more interviews. Was there any tension between the gang and the people you were interviewing, official wise?
Nathan: Well I don’t call them a gang by the way.

Smith: Yeah, they are bikers.
Nathan: Because really, the word gang was thrown around at first, around the premiere in the states. That was a problem because the riders would get upset about that.

Smith: I don’t think of them as a gang, honestly I don’t, they seem more like – just doing something rebellious as something fun to do, they are not actually harming people or committing any real crimes.
Nathan: It’s definitely dangerous. I mean it is technically a gang if you look up the dictionary definition.

Smith: Well it is a group of people committing an illegal act in a city. But their intention is not to hurt people. Was there a tension between the people you were filming on the bikes and the officials. Did they know you were filming both ways?
Nathan: The police?

Smith: Yes or either one.
Nathan: Yes, the police maybe didn’t know to what extent I was filming the bikes. Although they knew I was filming the bikes. I actually was given a court summons by the Baltimore police for filming illegal activity, but it ended up getting thrown out because its a big gray question mark. The moral issue of filming illegal activity. In this case its something that exists almost in perpetuity, a cyclical thing that happens whether you are there or not.

Smith: In a way, some of the bikers see it as promotion. They are filming themselves anyway.
Nathan: Right, they are filming themselves anyway – well isn’t this film validating it even more, or establishing it even more? Well I would say that its not because it also shows consequence and it is not necessarily – I would expect an audience to be able to read between the lines – there is some sort of darkness under that.

Smith: You start the film and end the film with that feeling that something is bad. You get into all kinds of things in the middle, but you bookend it by – something is not right with the situation.
Nathan: I definitely explored the other side, the side of the administration. I spoke with people who had lost loved ones, involved with accidents with the dirt-bike riders. There is a lot of other material around it. Also involving the city council was having a dialogue with the dirt-bike riders about getting a legitimate place to ride. Ultimately what was interesting to me was, a very zoomed in view of it, something as intimate as you can get – hopefully.

Smith: When you are filming Pug you do get into more than the bike riders, you show him progressing in school eventually and show him multiple times with animals. He seems to be enthralled with that kind of stuff.
Nathan: He is really into the animal thing too. Its impressive, you can tell he memorizes that information really willingly, its funny how kids’ minds work. Because I am sure there is a lot of other stuff in class, but if it is being fed to him the wrong way he wouldn’t be into it. But he actually goes and researches this animal stuff himself – he’s great. He’ll watch animal planet.

Smith: When you were filming him was there any guidance as to what he should or shouldn’t be doing, or was it just hands off following him around?
Nathan: That was always really difficult. Off camera I would pretty much tell Pug – focus on other things, don’t get hurt. I tried my very best not to get him on a bike, myself. But he was truly at this place, ultimately, where he was going towards it. He didn’t completely join the group at the end, either.

Smith: There is a scene where you show them taking the bikes out into the country – a safe environment to do that. For me when I was watching it, it seems like the obvious solution to this whole problem. Why can’t they see that?
Nathan: Why can’t who see that?

Smith: The bikers – I see that they like that it is a rebellious thing, but it has created problems.
Nathan: It is dangerous, there should be some resolution. They just can’t get out there. Steven can get out there because he has the resources. But a kid like Pug, without someone like Steven, typically there is no help with that. So they just cannot get out to a legal place to ride but they are so into it and really want to do it.

Smith: How much footage did you actually shoot?
Nathan: Probably 250-300 hours, I’m guessing. A lot of that is really unusable stuff though, because like I was saying, I was just learning the whole video thing at first. So a lot of the settings were fucked up on the early stuff – and the later stuff.

Smith: How do you attack that in the editing room? Obviously there are massive chunks that are totally erasable, but that still leaves hours and hours and hours.
Nathan: I had this amazing editor Thomas Niles, it was really his first feature that I think he had a good deal of authorship in the editing. But what I had done just before meet him was boiled down all the footage into about four hours – two hours of Pug and two hours of bikes. Somehow it needed to mesh together. Basically I just think throughout that process you are inevitably going to find these kernels that you really like and some are moments that you can’t make any sense out of in context yet. Then some you know are going to be very important to the story but don’t necessarily look the way you want them to, or something like that.

Smith: There is also a lot of different kinds of footage – there is cellphone footage, I don’t know what kind of camera you used but there is a vérité kind of thing following people around. Then there is the high-speed slow motion footage.
Nathan: Yeah, it really runs the gamut there.

Smith: Is there any thought process as to what you were looking for as you were shooting, or it just kind of happened?
Nathan: It just kind of happened I think. Some stuff looked a little bit too much like – I think there are a lot of conversations there. The intention of using all of those things together, first of all, I think is part of the forgiveness that you get by virtue of it being a documentary. Then there is also this tactile thing to the YouTube footage and VHS stuff, that speaks of how far the sport dates back. Then the decision to use the phantom camera, the super high-speed camera, which is a military grade camera – it’s beautiful, we were lucky to have that resource. The effort with that was to really slow down the situation so that the audience could see this moment there. Ultimately by the time it was married to the score, with Pug’s voice over and in the places that it was in the film – I think it serves as a dreamscape for Pug, where he is talking directly to the audience.

Smith: It is strange that you mention his voice over. When I was watching it for the first time, listening to him and the way you have it edited with the images, it really reminded me of the girl from Days of Heaven. Have you ever seen that movie?
Nathan: No, I have been told to see that movie.

Smith: The voice over from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, it reminded me so much – because it is this mumbled, really accented dialogue and it’s all from a kid’s perspective.
Nathan: Oh yeah I did see that.

Smith: I was really amazed how that connection came together, the films are so different but the voice overs felt so similar to me.
Nathan: We got really divisive with that – the voice over situation with Pug. I guess I got into really trying to orchestrate that. We would have Pug read this writing that we wrote together – have him whisper it and then have him yell it. It was really scrappy, you know what I mean.

Smith: I think that is pretty much how they did it in Days of Heaven, come up with dialogue and have it read in different kinds of ways – it works really well.
Nathan: Yeah, it was really fun.

Smith: Just to wrap up, what is your hope for this project? It has gotten picked up by Oscilloscope and will have a theatrical release, right?
Nathan: Yes, it will have a limited theatrical release. We think early 2014.

Smith: When it hits audiences, what do you hope they will pick up from this film?
Nathan: I think for an audience to get an understanding of why such a thing exists. What it means for a young kid who is gravitating towards it. While obviously understanding the consequences and the danger of it – to get a sense of that necessity for it.

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