In one of the most lyrical sequences in the film, Pug, the young protagonist of Lotfy Nathan’s new documentary 12 O’Clock Boys, explains the genesis of the film’s title:“They call them 12 O’Clock Boys because they drive the bike straight back, like the hands on the clock. If you get to 12 O’Clock, you’re the shit, you know you’re in the pack, that’s when you can really shine.” The film examines Pug’s rough Baltimore community and its famous riders, a group of young men who tear through the streets on dirt bikes. In Baltimore, they are either the bane of the city or its heroes, depending on whom you ask.
With what’s clearly remarkable access to the world of these riders, Nathan beautifully captures the raw and kinetic energy of the bikes on the road. He has also crafted a distinct portrait of the surrounding community through the hopes of Pug, a wannabe biker whose candid, hammy nature punctuates so many scenes. I recently caught up with Nathan in a Williamsburg cafe, a few months after both our films premiered at South by Southwest (SXSW) and were picked up by the same distributor.
Valentina Canavesio (Rail): How did this film come about?
Lotfy Nathan: I went to school in Baltimore. I was studying painting there, and I started taking a couple of video classes on the side, and was attracted to the subject. I would see those kind of bandits tearing around the city. I had no idea what they were about and I was living in a kind of sheltered situation in Baltimore—a private university where they really try to keep a manicured façade, but it’s impossible to separate that from Baltimore. It’s a real checkerboard city so I think it’s impossible to avoid the realities of it. I saw those guys maybe three or four times over a few years living in Baltimore, so when I was taking a documentary course I thought they would be an interesting subject. It became the most compelling project I was working on.
Rail: Did you find it difficult to get access and gain the bikers’ trust as an outsider?
Nathan: No, I think it wasn’t too bad. I think being an outsider was probably a benefit. Just having the interest in the first place, a kind of naïve, superficial interest was my point of entry—but I think the nature of their sport calls for attention. They want attention; it’s a big showcase, show-off thing. So they were happy to be filmed.
Rail: How did Pug become part of the story?
Nathan: Initially I met the older bikers and was getting a lot of action footage from them and was really excited about it, but I felt like something was missing. I was still looking for someone to latch onto as a character when I was introduced to Pug. At that point, I’d been filming for a year and a half and he stood out with his really unique look—this little kid on a tiny four-wheeler who was sort of funny and had a very vulnerable look, but at the same time was speaking tough like the older guys, so it was a great juxtaposition.
Rail: Sometimes, when I’m filming young people in difficult situations, I find it hard to keep a balance between my role as a filmmaker and that as an adult figure. Was that a challenge for you?
Nathan: Yes, a lot of times that was a problem. I had to make the decision early on when I was filming Pug that it was okay to do so because I was trying to document his pursuit to join the group. I obviously didn’t want to encourage him, but I felt sure enough that he was obsessed with it already. You can see in the film that even as a little kid, he is very staunch about what he wants to do and he really has a one-track mind for it. I felt that his environment, and his ambition, and what he is going through dictates a lot more than how I could possibly encourage him, so I just observed. But off camera I would worry and tell him to be careful. At the same time, I was also pretty young myself and this is my first film, so the idea of the exploitation and what we were getting ourselves into—I was pretty naïve to it.
Rail: To what degree is Baltimore a character in the film? The bikers ride through the whole city, right?
Nathan: Yes, and that’s something I wish I was able to visualize more in the film somehow. A lot of the people living in these marginalized communities are contained within their neighborhoods, but breaking out on these bikes through the city is a celebration; it’s like a big primal yell. Even the sound of it, which resounds through the whole city on Sundays, is like the sound of a bee off in the distance. Everybody in the city hears it, and it’s a way for the bikers to reclaim the space.
It becomes embarrassing for the administration and police of Baltimore because the bikers go to these tourist areas like the Inner Harbor—that’s not Baltimore but that’s what a lot of people who visit Baltimore think Baltimore is, and then you get these guys tearing through the city and it’s like your crazy uncle barging into the room during dinner. Whether you like it or not, it’s your family.
Rail: To me, the beautiful high-speed, slow motion shots with the music conjured up a religious or sacred experience. Was that calculated?
Nathan: I definitely wanted there to be moments that illustrated Pug’s vision of the group as visually and as sensationally as possible. Also, I wanted to bring it away from a hip-hop aesthetic. I think that music choice would have been too easy and I wanted to make a departure from that. At the same time, I didn’t want to impose an art-house sound, so ultimately we made this dream space with the phantom camera, the music, and Pug’s voice-over.
Rail: How are the 12 O’Clock Boys perceived by the rest of Baltimore?
Nathan: It really ranges, which is proof of the social divides of Baltimore. In more affluent communities they are looked at as complete terrors, in other communities they are just seen as obnoxious, and in others some people love them. Pug started as a fan and there are all sorts of people, of all ages, who are fans. And that’s another thing, for a kid like Pug and other kids in the inner city—they need to do something edifying because people just need that at a young age, but at the same time what they are doing in that context needs to be renegade, so I think that’s why they really appreciate them.
Rail: You make a point to avoid calling the bikers a gang, and one of the bikers in the film actually says they transcend gangs. Is that really the case?
Nathan: The reason that I don’t say gangs is that in the context of Baltimore, it wouldn’t be fair to call them a gang. It became clear to me that they weren’t all that threatening; if anything they were friendly. And I’ve lived in Baltimore long enough to see the difference. The people who are in gangs are different. These guys are not in gangs: it’s not that kind of aggression. They are neutral. All sorts of people watch them. People who would be at odds with each other all appreciate those guys, despite their mischief and the fact that it may be dangerous and illegal.
Rail: Pug looks up to dirt bike riding as a means to freedom and escape, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there is actual hope for kids like him to escape their environment.
Nathan: The riding itself is very limited. That’s not a real escape in my opinion. It’s a momentary fix. In terms of what someone could actually do, it would probably be equipping oneself to actually move through the system. There is no gold pot at the end of the rainbow. Riding bikes is a thing that you can always do and it’s exciting, and it’s a thrill, and you can lose yourself in it, but I don’t know that it’s the kind of thing that could bring a kid into a stable future. It’s difficult. The options are limited, and my take-away is that the educational system in Baltimore is so limited, which, in my mind, is the only thing that could set Pug up for some kind of escape. On the other hand, everything requires a compromise, and I think that anyone who disagrees with that really doesn’t understand the limited options people have. There’s a much greater likelihood that someone will get in a shitty situation and do something really bad if they are growing up in the hood, so in some ways this provides for a better alternative.