Early in 12 O'Clock Boys, Lotfy Nathan's new film about Baltimore's urban dirt-bike riders, we see a group of riders in slow motion, reaching for glory with their front tires. A guy with a Batman shirt and dreads does a long wheelie, taking one hand off the handlebars and reaching for the camera. The look on his face is calm and serene, while another guy behind him grins as he kneels on the seat, hoisting his front wheel toward noon. Behind this, a hypnotic score swells to fit the exquisite cinematography, capturing the transcendent calm one can feel in such intense situations.
And on top of the music, there is the voice of Pug, the film's main character, sounding like a cross between Snoop Dogg and Snoop Pearson in his intensely laid-back intonation. "They call them 12 O'Clock Boys 'cause they ride the bikes straight back," he says in a voiceover. "If you get to 12 o'clock, you the shit. You know you in the pack. That's when you can really shine."
The film-which makes its local debut at the Maryland Film Festival Friday, May 10-has become a favorite on the film-festival circuit and, after earning great reviews at South by Southwest, was picked up by Oscilloscope Laboratories, the company co-founded by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch that previously released the Banksy-directed Exit Through the Gift Shop.
It's full of gorgeously shot slo-mo action sequences and high-speed chases worthy of The French Connection, but at its heart 12 O'Clock Boys is a movie about Pug, a deeply likable and charismatic kid who is 11 years old when the film begins, and the three years he spends desperately trying to be a part of the "flock." The question it raises is: Why?
On the surface, it's not at all a difficult question to answer. Pug is desperate to be a part of the group for the same reason people are talking about the movie-it is exciting. But there is more to it than that. "I see it was a way of escape," director Nathan told CP in a previous interview. "It's a way of mentorship for a lot of kids who don't necessarily have or see alternatives that are obviously looking for something to adhere to and some kind of institution-something to aspire to. It's conflicted, obviously, but in a lot of situations in Baltimore, it seems like the lesser of two evils."
Or as Pug puts it: "That's what we do is ride bikes. Ain't nothin' else to do in Baltimore."
This aspect is clear in the film. In one sequence, Pug goes out, fills up a Gatorade bottle with gas, and stands on the side of the road, waving his arms and screaming, hoping the riders will notice him and his gift.
We see some of the riders who mentor Pug, helping him pick out a bike or taking him and some other kids out to a field where they can ride unencumbered. (We also see another older rider steal the bike Pug finally gets in one of the film's many heartbreaking moments.)
Now, Pug talks a lot about the thrill of riding itself. "When I was younger, I really wanted to ride with the flock, and then I first rode with the flock on December 23, 2012," he said in a recent late-night phone call. "All the stress and everything you are going through-you're free and you're happy-all the stress is gone. You feel relief when you get on that dirt bike, you don't worry about nothing, none of that, just ride, go with the flow, the only thing you got to worry about is the police."
But the feeling of riding is inextricably linked with being part of the group. "Police try to say like we're a gang. It's not a gang," Pug says. "We're like a flock of birds flying in the sky, like a school of fish swimming in the ocean, following each other."
And then there are the spectators. "It's the people, the people, when you ride past they's like 'Daaang. Hey 12 O'Clock Boys!' and we drive past and they are waving and smiling and happy and that's the exciting part," Pug says. "When you're riding that bike, you do what you can do. When you get on a block with a lot of people, it's like a parade."
It's hard to overstate the importance of style in creating the appeal of the 12 O'Clock Boys. After all, Pug and anyone else who wants to ride has to pine badly enough to get a bike and practice and look goofy and fall, long before riding with the flock.
In the introduction to his famous essay collection The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Tom Wolfe argues that the aesthetic of California's custom cars came about when people who had never had the money to build monuments to their own taste got access to cash in the economic boom following World War II. One could make a similar argument about the phenomenon of the 12 O'Clock Boys, except here, in 21st-century Baltimore, the enabling factor isn't money but access to technology. Nathan's film makes it clear how large a role online videos played in the urban dirt-bike scene. People like Pug are desperate to ride dirt bikes at 10 or 12 years old, not only because they'd actually seen the dirt bikes on the street but because they had seen the videos of the original 12 O'Clock Boys.
And the videos of the legends, as Pug calls them, aren't just of wheelies and other tricks, but rather, like the seminal Bones Brigade skate videos of the 1980s, the 12 O'Clock Boys Inc. videos created personalities out of the important riders like Superman, Wheelie Wayne, and Weedy.
And watching them, whether in Nathan's film or on YouTube, these mad dirt bikes and four-wheelers are the perfect aesthetic complement to the blocks of abandoned rowhouses that abound in Baltimore; they manage to turn the decay of the city into a high-octane art by their interactions with it. They take what they can't escape and make it cool.
Lotfy Nathan is clear, however, that he doesn't want his film to be seen as a one-sided celebration of the subculture. "It's my concern, actually, when this screens in Baltimore that some people will see it only as this sort of promotional thing," he says. "But ultimately it's a beneficial thing on either side for people to see that voice. These parts that can be seen as sensational-making excitement and entertainment out of that element-are delivered through Pug's voice for a reason. It is his vision of that being a dream. What I wanted was just to give another understanding of why that exists and to give another reason for that without being exploitative."
And, of course, it is a tremendously charged issue in Baltimore, with the police constantly trying to find new ways to foil the riders, whom they are not allowed to chase and by whom they are often taunted. (One sequence shows a rider leading a cop car around the way a matador would lead a bull before kicking its door and speeding away.) In the film, the viewer becomes so involved in the world that the newscasters reporting on the issue all blur together in a way that seems almost comedic.
"The intention was not to make that comedic," Nathan says. "I believe the consequences and the air of danger and a certain dread around the conflict in this sport is between the lines in the film without being so explicit. We interviewed BPD public affairs, various city council members, [and] filmed town hall meetings, but ultimately I thought what would be most valuable for people to see is the inside. The news stuff shows some of the opposition. It is not a film that is supposed to promote the dirt-bike riders. I don't think it's that simple and superficial. That would be a simple view of the piece."
Nathan says that he wishes he had been able to have more of the police perspective, but the formality of his contact with BPD made it almost impossible. "I wasn't getting that sort of truth of a struggle or truth of the frustration through a character or a personal voice on the side of the police, and because of that I don't think it could be in there. I was concerned with story and characters and that ultimately took precedence for me and I made a decision to avoid issues if they weren't coming through organically."
Nathan never really intended to be a filmmaker. He grew up in England, moved to Boston as a child, and came to MICA to study painting when he decided to start filming the dirt-bike riders for a class. "It was totally naive," he says.
Though he didn't ride bikes himself for filming, Nathan is often in a truck with a man named Stephen, who says that since he no longer rides, he plays a supporting role, helping the riders.
"Sometimes I felt that it was exciting, sometimes I felt that it was extremely scary, sometimes I felt that it was absurd and reckless," Nathan says of the rides. "I found myself experiencing both sides. I can honestly say that going on those rides with Stephen and sort of on the side of the riders, I got just a fraction of what it feels like to them. But I was quite oftentimes standing, watching it from amongst those people who were disapproving and were opposed. I feel like it runs the whole range and hopefully that comes across in the movie."
As soon as he met Pug, Nathan knew the young boy would be the heart of the story. It is clear from talking to them that both Nathan and Pug learned a lot from each other. Nathan was there as Pug went through crucial years of development and faced extraordinary difficulties-such as the death of his brother Tibba, from asthma-with aplomb. Pug's family, and especially his mother Coco, stand out as characters as well, even if they occasionally come across like reality-television stars. When asked how he got such extraordinary access (he films Coco fighting with another woman at Tibba's funeral), Nathan says, "I can honestly say that, as people, Coco and her family are more comfortable than I am, you know? It's like they invited me to get that close, should I be willing, you know? She's just a very colorful, boisterous person in the first place."
Coco says that after a while she hardly noticed Nathan's presence. "Honestly, I never really paid them any attention because they were always around," she says. "There were times when they would wake us up out of our sleep and start filming. It got so I never really noticed because they were always there."
There are moments when-because the film creates such sympathy for the sweetly charismatic Pug-the viewer might question Coco's parental judgment. "It's easy enough to pass judgment watching this," Nathan admits. "But the fact is that Coco has it very hard and she's doing the best she can. That's something I will always stand by. Hopefully at this screening in Baltimore, people will see that, will understand the backdrop. The decision we made in editing and in storytelling is not to have to explicitly and defensively lay out all of the obstacles and all of the stuff that is troubling and tragic in their history, because it's just supposed to be about what is going on now."
Coco is philosophical about putting her own troubles on display. "When people think they going through something, there are other people going through something bigger than your problems," she says. "I wanted people to see what our life was about."
Nathan developed a deep attachment to his characters. "There's a relationship with Pug and his family and obviously a concern for Pug's well-being," he says. "But the intention in the film was to show his natural trajectory."
Pug's trajectory actually ends at the very beginning. In the first scene of the film, we see him older, standing in the back of a moving van as the shadows cast by the passing lights flash across his sweaty face, tight with tension. I won't give away the context, because the film works its way back to this powerful image. But Nathan was forthcoming about its importance to him and the film.
"At its most basic, that shot to me is Pug right at the precipice of adulthood. I'm obviously putting a lot into that image. That's a time when I saw a lot of telling on Pug's face, a lot of determination, and age, I think, most importantly," he says. "That shot to me represents the end of his age of innocence, so for it to come preceding the film, it puts it into context and it's an important foreshadowing."
And where is the 15-year-old Pug now? Throughout the film, he wants to be a veterinarian and has an extraordinary knowledge-and collection-of animals. At one point in the film Coco is on the verge of going to jail because of his truancy. Now Pug says he is passing all of his classes in school, but he no longer wants to work with animals; he aims to be a professional motocross rider. He talks about how different motocross is from riding on the street and the difficulty of making the transition-but he's not really able to practice it. "They have all these abandoned buildings, and they can't tear a few down and make a safe place for them to ride?" Coco asks.
In the movie, Pug goes out to a field with other riders, but he says the police ultimately chased them there too.
"Where we used to ride at, back there the police be coming out and chasing us," he says. "They call the helicopter and all that. That was in January. I had a 1060 and was riding in a field at a track around a school. Three police at the top blocked me."
In fact, Pug doesn't ride at all right now.
"I don't ride my bike right now because the police really on it. I ain't ride my bike in a minute," he says. "I was worried about school, because I know I got a bike. I got a bike."
Though he enjoyed the premiere at South by Southwest, when asked if he might quit riding and pursue a movie career, Pug says, "I ain't done with riding bikes. That's my life. That's what I do, I ride bikes."