12 O’Clock Boys follows a group of urban dirt bike riders in
Baltimore and a preteen named Pug that wants to join the ranks.
The “12 O’Clock Boys” is a film by Lotfy Nathan documenting a group of urban dirt bike riders in Baltimore. The film debuts in a number of major cities and becomes available on VOD on January 31, 2014. Below is an interview with Nathan and a review of the film written by guest contributor, Courtney Olive, a writer and rider based in Portland, Oregon. – MotoUSA
When you see it, every time you see it, a 12 o’clock wheelie is awe-some, in the literal sense. But when you see a pack of urban dirt bike riders, more than 100 strong, defiantly lofting endless wheelies and taunting police in broad daylight through the streets of Baltimore—it’s both jarring and electrifying. And such have been the reactions to 12 O’Clock Boys, a documentary with a name only a motorcyclist might immediately get, that is the work of director Lotfy Nathan. If you don’t recognize his name it’s likely because this is his first film, and he was just 22 when he started the project. A few weeks before its January 31, 2014 premiere, I talked with Nathan about the film.
12 O’Clock Boys is a three-year immersion into the life of a preteen named Pug, a “grown-ass man” as he says, and his single-minded quest to ride the city streets of Baltimore with the dirt bike pack. With contrasting puppy dog eyes and miles of trash talk, he’s a reflection of his mother and his larger community. Coco, once an exotic dancer and now a single mom to Pug and his four siblings, reflects on a picture of Pug as a baby staring up from a bathtub. “What do I want to do in life? Who am I? What do I want to be? That’s what those little eyes are saying,” she says. Nathan’s camera is there as Pug unknowingly struggles with those very questions. And while the story is told from Pug’s perspective, it’s equally about the 12 O’Clock Boys as they seek validation in their own way.
Nathan tells me about the first time he approached a pack of 12 O’Clockers with a camera. They were hanging out with their bikes on a baseball diamond. “I was very wary at first, but they were all just excited about bikes and happy to talk about it. That very first day they showed me a little demo on how to get it started. They were teaching a first time rider how to do it,” he says. “He was borrowing the bike; three guys shared it,” he says.
Like the first-timer being tutored on the baseball diamond, Pug also benefits from the strong mentoring culture within the 12 O’Clockers. A veteran rider named “Bam” says of Pug “It looks good when you see a little guy, real small, wheelieing a bike. We look at it like, yeah, that’s good because he’s getting in training now. Imagine him when he gets older, what he’s gonna be doing.” At first, you wonder whether it really is good. After all, the 12 O’Clockers’ disregard for traffic laws and indifference to authority is shocking. You find yourself wincing at the danger. But Nathan captures the riders’ hearts and souls on film, revealing there is much more to “dirt bike life” than mayhem.
Bam describes it this way: “When I get downstairs…and I see that bike it’s just, like, my girlfriend and I’m talking to her…’yeah, we gonna tear the streets up today.’ Once I start that bike up, it’s like a nervous feeling. My leg starts to shake. It’s just a feeling like, ‘what could go wrong this day?’ This could be my last time on the bike. May be police chasing, you may get hurt. I think about everything, I think about everything in the morning…but once I pull off, (camera cuts to him yanking a block-long wheelie), all that feeling just goes out the window – it’s just me, the world, the bike, and the streets.”
Nearly all riders know it – the zone, zen, those motorcycle moments of nirvana. As a slow-motion montage of vertical bikes drifts across the screen, another long-time 12 O’Clocker remembers his first ride with the pack. “It was sooo fun, it was soooOOOO fun. It was just like, the funnest day of my life and I just went home and just fell asleep. Man that day was the best. And I just couldn’t wait ‘til another Sunday, that’s all. I just couldn’t wait. Another Sunday. I just wanted to ride again.”
I ask Nathan what he thinks is the source of the riders’ passion. “I think the passion stems from the danger, and the adrenaline. I haven’t felt it before,” Nathan explains, “but I have experienced it indirectly while filming. A kind of contact high. I have a feeling it’s the kind of thing that motorcyclists share. I had a scooter for a while and felt it a little bit, probably 30% of the feeling of being on a real bike,” he says.
When the time comes for Pug to make his first Sunday ride, on a mysteriously-acquired Honda CRF 150R, he announces to the camera that he is now “Biker boy Pug!” The night before the ride he struts around his backyard decked out in denim fineries and sunglasses, there’s an antsy pit bull chained to the fence at his side. He’s crowing for the camera, speechifying about how he’ll burn up the streets on the 150R, get the girls, and tell the cops to kiss it. But then he trips over the dog underfoot. Instantly embarrassed, he’s suddenly just a kid again.
Since he worked alone in filming most of the movie, I ask Nathan how he stuck it out for over three years. “As a first project, you don’t know how hard it is. You can kind of endure it since you don’t know any better.” Along the way he developed vital relationships with a producer and editors, all feeding off each others’ enthusiasm for the material. “People like that really made it feel like it was bigger than me. They set the stage for how much I should give to it. It’s daunting to take on something like that,” he tells me.
As the film unfolds, it does begin to feel larger than life. You may find yourself suspending reality and forgetting about the illegality. When you do, you notice that true tenets of motorcycling—themes common to us all—are present. A proud community. Mentoring. Mechanical knowhow and pride of ownership. Patient practice, determination to ride better. Keeping cool. And the granddaddy: Freedom. Freedom that not even the ghetto’s grip can contain. Pug narrates in a soft, reverent voice: “They are free. They get on that bike, they feel powerful. Whatever’s going on in their life, it’s all gone. They can escape…and ride.”
However, Nathan draws a line. He staunchly tells me, “I never endeavored to make something that was necessarily supportive. The idea was to show perspectives of this marginalized community. The criticism that bugs me is that it’s ‘promoting’ the thing. There are plenty of movies that have the protagonist coming from the ‘bad guy’ side; it just seems harder for people when that’s the case in a documentary. But, it is.” I ask him if, after spending three years with the riders, he felt some allegiance or commitment to them. “Yes and no. I have my opinion on whether it’s the best solution to the problems in the city. I’ve seen the consequences and how it can impact people’s lives.”
Nathan’s internal conflict comes through on the screen. At times the film feels like a surreal picture of society on the brink of collapse. Sirens and searchlights are everywhere, people scatter, two-strokes wail donuts in the median, helicopters swarm, yet Pug and his pals run around maniacally laughing like it’s the Fourth of July.
12 O’Clock Boys may fuel outrage or it may leave us awe-struck, but it’s hard to walk away from it without wondering what’s going to happen to these guys. I ask Nathan if he thinks Pug was affected by him and, more specifically, his camera being a part of Pug’s life for three years. “I can’t imagine that he wasn’t, but he’s also very strong-willed for such a young kid. He’s going to follow whatever he’s inclined to,” Nathan says.
Courtney Olive is a rider and writer who makes his home in Portland, OR.