The subjects of director Lotfy Nathan’s debut documentary, 12 O’Clock Boys, do not identify as a gang. These Baltimore dirt-bike riders are a group, or even a team. Pug, a 13-year-old whose perspective Nathan shaped his doc around after three years of filming, says that riding makes his peers feel “powerful” and serves as an escape from the pitfalls of inner-city life.
The police and other Baltimore residents see the illegal activity differently. During the opening scene, with a doleful Pug staring into the camera, an unidentified man’s opinion serves as voiceover. He calls the riders “scumbags,” “bastards,” makes a point of them being African-American, and finishes his rant by saying, “I don’t care if they get hurt. Frankly, I don’t care if one of them dies.”
So is this underground lifestyle, with its obsessives ranging in age from preteens to young men, a good thing or a bad thing?
An older rider nicknamed Superman says it’s somewhere in between. Though dirt-biking may not be “extra positive,” it gives easily influenced kids something to do besides hanging on street corners and toying with trouble. A former rider named Stephen describes the hobby as completely innocent, saying it’s just something the group loves to do, that it takes skill, and there’s no intention of hurting anybody or breaking laws. (Their name comes from a particular skill the riders try to master: Doing a wheelie that’s completely vertical—-or 12 o’clock—-makes you “the shit.”)
And yet: A cop claims that 10 to 15 riders die each summer. One ran into a 6-year-old boy, nearly killing him. Footage shows dozens of them dominating city streets, circling police cruisers and even kicking the cars, knowing that Baltimore law enforcement has a do-not-chase policy.
For a first-time filmmaker, Nathan achieves a remarkable balance, presenting each side with very little bias. (The judgment that can be gleaned suggests that the director sees riding as not much different than gangster activities.) His whiplash camera is sometimes disorienting, but the film overall is a work of art, its frames sharp and brightly colored, with even night scenes looking like they’re flooded by the sun with an effect added to streetlights. Occasionally Nathan will employ slow-motion accompanied by an ethereal instrumental soundtrack. It makes the riders seem otherworldly—-and he smartly restrains himself from overusing the gimmick that would quickly turn it into a parody.
Pug’s growth from the time filming started in 2010 is the focus, however. It’s clear that he’s a smart, funny, curious kid who is heading in the right direction. (His mom, a former exotic dancer, admits that she “don’t know where [his knowledge] came from.”) Though already streetwise, he’s still sleeping under cartoon comforters and jumping on pogo sticks when he begins to act tougher, proclaiming himself “a grown-ass man.” He’s preternaturally aware that he can’t rely on tomorrow, because people can die at any moment. And, sadly, his evolution seems to confirm something else that Stephen says: “You will find the right way to do all the wrong shit in Baltimore City.”
The film opens tonight at West End Cinema. See showtimes.