Hot Docs Review: 12 O’clock Boys [Lotfy Nathan, 2013]


Baltimore – Every sunny Sunday since I moved down, the rumbling sound of engines invariably invades Orlean Street some time in the afternoon. At first it would be a few lone engine bursts, sounding like the cries of old men being ferried across pothole-filled roads at breakneck speed. But soon it crescendos into a background so loud, that you feel like your landlord just took the rent from the whole National Zoo. And when it all trails off with that unmistakably tragic Dopler shift, I’m left confused about what it was all about. In this documentary, I got a glimpse to that answer, if nothing at least a name for this bunch.

12 O’clock Boys follows Pug, a dimunitive but spirited teenager in West (later East) Baltimore, determined to become one of the boyz. The name is a visual reference to a person’s skills with wheelie on a dirt bike – if you’re pointing at 12 O’clock (straight-up), you’re a made man. Well, not in the mafia sense. The boyz is a loosely associated group with no agenda except to ride across town, displaying their skills. It’s a hobby that is, deep down, as harmless as, say, a local Shelby/Porsche/Bentley motor club or hot rod or chopper riders, cruising down the main drag of town. The distinctively Baltimorean group was started by two dirt bike riders, and have grown since to a legion of perhaps 100 riders. As with any large group of people in a public space, then, they inevitably come into contact with the police. And you can easily imagine the public opinion regarding teenagers on bikes trying to motorcross on the road as well as sidewalks at 30 mph. Amidst all this, Pug is nevertheless willing to take time and money (just like a motor club, you need to buy entry fee), over the span of 3 years and through many hardships, to get to 12 O’clock.

Nathans did a great job with the subject matter, in my opinion. Through a character portrait of Pug, the entire debate seems so much more innocent than a simple collection of all those involved. Through slow-motion, the bike-riding is romanticized at a level comparable to a hallowed outdoors activity, like snowboarders/surfers carving their way by the camera with their fingertips. Such is the magic of the narrative that even theft will become (and trust me, you will agree) worth celebrating. And through Pug, the audience is offered a background refresher on the living conditions of Baltimorean urban youth – which inevitably leads one to sympathize with the 12 O’clock Boyz. Unlike documentaries such as the Interrupters, which deals with counseling and intervention for gangsters already too far into the game, Nathans take the audience from the beginning and not the aftermath of a troubled childhood. You understand very quickly why many become angry and disconnected with our society, especially when the public and law enforcement cracks down on one of the few activities available to them. Well, at least I understand in an emotional sense. Be prepared for the surprisingly fluent yet mangled English that is projected from the streets of East Baltimore. I am still at a loss about what came out of that woman while she was in a rage in the street with a baseball bat. Nathans did not tint this film with any colors – and he doesn’t need to. As you watch the confrontations between police and the bikers occurring in broad-daylight, in the middle of the streets, you feel that you’re revisiting some class materials for civil disobedience. It really makes you rethink if the crackdown should be replaced with more positive measures. Perhaps law enforcement and the bikers should come to a truce and set aside time/place for these activities? But maybe that WAS the point, the thrill, that these youths seek. I highly recommend seeing this film, if nothing, as an introduction to how much life can suck but you can still enjoy living it. Do you remember when you rode your bike/magic-carpet down the pavement/snow so fast that you went into the traffic? I do. On several occasions, too. Who am I to judge then, if dirt-biking remains as innocent as it was portrayed in this film – just a past-time until you grow up?

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews