Early into the new documentary 12 O'Clock Boys, there's a high-energy sequence—choppers, cops, dirt bikes moving fast enough you feel like they could take off—that just makes you sit up and take notice. It's the kind of thing that even Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn would find mesmerizing. Beneath the inherent danger of the scene, there's this feeling of freedom.
First-time filmmaker Lotfy Nathan, working without an entourage of assistant directors, cinematographers—whatever—is riding shotgun in a van driven by a Baltimore man named Steven. A sort of getaway driver, Steven is down with the titular "12 O'Clock Boys," the infamous dirt bike and four-wheel riders who zoom the streets of B-More every Sunday afternoon. They speed down busy public streets, popping wheelies and generally pissing off pedestrians and cops alike. Steven's role: scoop any of them if the law shows up. In this particular scene, it's just Nathan and his camera next to Steven. What begins as just another Sunday joy ride for upwards of 20-30 riders escalates into something out of Fast and Furious, complete with police helicopters and a pumped-up soundtrack.
Like the entirety of 12 O'Clock Boys (which opens in theaters nationwide today), the sequence is an engrossing and rare look at a subculture of Baltimore that, until now, has only been seen in negative news reports and celebratory YouTube clips uploaded by the riders themselves. Nathan began filming 12 O'Clock Boys without biases or preconceived notions. For him, the project was all about depicting what's publicly viewed as a disruptive and criminal pastime from the inside out, to capture life for the riders who live it.
Which isn't without adversity or danger. "For them, it's an escape," says Nathan, 27. "It's a kind of drug, the feeling you get when you're riding. They do it so they can embrace all those things they're challenged by and hit with on a day-to-day basis—how fragile life is and how treacherous the world can be. They embrace that and dance with it on Sundays out on their bikes."
12 O'Clock Boys began life as a school project for Nathan, an England-born, Boston-raised painting major at the Maryland Institute College of Art back in 2009. The professor for his documentary production class—which he'd signed up for on a whim—tasked the class with an assignment: pick a subject, spend the entire semester shooting, and then present an eight-minute doc. Nathan, living in Bolton Hill, MD, at the time, had seen the 12 O'Clock Boys ride past his apartment once when he and some friends were hanging out on the roof, and had remained fascinated—he had his subject. "Nobody I knew really knew what they were about," he says, "so when I had to pick a documentary, I thought making a film in search of these guys could be interesting, not expecting to actually engage with them."
To his surprise, the riders were more than happy to greet his camera, whether they were showing off their bikes or demonstrating their best tricks. Nathan's lo-fi, everyman aesthetic didn't hurt matters, either. "I wasn't exactly intimidating," he says. "I was this clumsy dude with a little camera who just wanted to see what they're about. I wasn't with a big crew, like when there's those well put together camera crews with obvious money and their broadcast-news way of speaking to people. That's when people get the sense that their culture might be captured in a superficial or exploitative light. I was the complete opposite of that. I was just learning as I was going. They could tell I wasn't much of a threat."
Over time, Nathan realized that the one-of-a-kind access he'd been given by the riders deserved more attention and time than what his eight-minute thesis film allowed. After graduation, his school homework evolved into 12 O'Clock Boys, a feature-length documentary that was still missing the hook it needed to be something more. Nathan, for one, couldn't give a damn less about ride. He had little desire to make some gearhead fetish porn. "Just from passing time, I got bored of certain things and certain rhetoric," he recalls. "I wanted something new."
Enter a then-12-year-old Baltimore kid named Pug. Through one of his contacts living in West Baltimore, Nathan was introduced to the wide-eyed, innocent youngster, a wannabe 12 O'Clock Boy whose excitement was captivating. In the feature, Pug's fanboy view of the Boys is palpable whenever he talks about them. He explains the meaning of the moniker: "They drop the bikes straight back, like hands on a clock."
Nathan says, "We walked up to this tiny kid zipping up and down this block with a dead-end on a mini bike. His mom was sitting outside, and she basically started telling us her entire life story within five seconds of meeting her. And the rest is history."
Nathan went to work exploring Pug's family. His mother, Coco, was an exotic dancer when she gave birth to Pug, and whom left Pug's biological dad after their fourth child together was born and daddy kept going in and out of jail. Through filming Pug and his family for three years before completing 12 O'Clock Boys in early 2013, Nathan's project gradually became less about the riders as a whole and more about Pug's life: Coco loses control, grows frustrated with Pug's increasing independence and tough-guy defiance, and, at one point, considers putting him into the foster care system.
"When I first met Pug and his family, I saw this young kid who dreamed about riding dirt bikes, but he was also on the outside of it," says Nathan. "There were so many intimate, raw moments between him and his family, and that became a lot more exciting to me. To think I could just film the family in all the goings-on of their lives started to give the project heart to me."
The end result is a beautiful, lyrical film. There's a Terrence Malick-esque visual sense in 12 O'Clock Boys' most stylish moments, with slow-motion shots of the riders set to an enchanting, choir-heavy score that would sound right at home blaring out of St. Peter's boom-box's speakers outside the Pearly Gates. It's an altogether engrossing experience, offsetting those almost otherworldly asides with on-the-ground immediacy of a police pursuit.
All of which, for Nathan, goes hand in hand, and should make anyone whose quick to condemn Baltimore's inner-city roadsters as inconsiderate troublemakers think twice. "Pug's understanding of life and death, Pug's understanding of crime and the options he has, those are all things that everyone of these riders went through when they were kids," says Nathan. "I don't care where you are, you have to understand that a kid like Pug is growing up differently than a kid in the suburbs. There's a lot of negativity cast upon these guys, but it's a result of a certain upbringing that they were brought into and forced to navigate through at a very young age. I think I was able to capture that, too, through Pug and the three years I spent alongside him, watching him grow up differently than I or anyone I knew ever grew up."
He adds, "If you're growing up in a rough place, you're not going to look for something sweet—you're going to have a taste for the rough. It's only natural that a kid like Pug will want to do something that's renegade, that has an edge to it. Even kids in the suburbs wants that, so you can imagine what it'd be like for kids who have it a lot worse. For Pug, and for the rest of the 12 O'Clock Boys, this is a wholesome sport."
Or as Pug himself puts it in the film, "They get on that bike, whatever's going on in their life, it's all gone. They can escape…and ride."
In addition to its theatrical run, 12 O'Clock Boys is now available through Vimeo On Demand.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)