First time director Lotfy Nathan has spent the last few years documenting war in the streets of Baltimore, though not against drugs or the classic gang-bangers of old you might guess. Instead, the city’s police force have been puzzling over an urban siege of dirt-bike riders who take the streets as mobs of wheelie-pulling speed demons with a propulsion to ride fast and fuck with the 5-0 at every given opportunity. Thanks to widespread news coverage and self produced YouTube videos, the dirt-bike gang has come to be know as the notorious 12 O’Clock Boys. Nathan’s fiery docu debut searches for the motive behind these motor heads and finds a perfect example in a glib 13 year old whose only want in life is to mount a full sized dirt-bike like the troupe of bad ass riders he regards with the highest esteem.
We are introduced to the nefarious young rider, Pug, through half garbled urbanized voice over as if some distant relative of Linda Manz in Days of Heaven. Not unlike Linda, we first see the boy on the run, but his brief sweat drenched introduction will prove to be the apex of his dangerous escapades. Two years earlier, spinning donuts on his mini four-wheeler, he speaks of his dreams of riding with the big boys, front wheel to the sky without a worry on his mind. A bright kid, but one lacking a father figure and desperately in need of more parental supervision than his poorly composed mother can offer, Pug’s attraction to the bike gang starts to grow from a gear head fascination into a downhill cultural compulsion. With the sudden death of his older brother, what little interest he had in school drifts to singular thoughts of being dirt-bike bound.
All but giving up hope of restricting her street-smart spawn, Pug’s mother is portrayed as a haggard mess of belligerence, only speaking in condemnations broken up by warped profanity. It’s really no wonder why a 13 year old kid might look for any reason to be out wandering the streets warming up to those older, seemingly wiser, and considerably warmer than his own guardian, especially if they’ve mastered the art of motor bike riding. Though Pug is unique for his dexterous riding ability and unfaltering charisma at his age, Nathan depicts him as the norm. A city dwelling youngster whose life is stalled out before it ever has a chance to hit the gas. At 15, he’s been broken by his surroundings and blinded to the potential that schooling can bear. The blinders are on. There is only the streets and Nathan is sure to spend plenty of time within them.
Witnessing the rush of bikers blasting by just feet from the curb is anxiety inducing in and of itself. You get the sense that at any second someone might eat shit and land themselves or someone else in the hospital or worse. This is why the Baltimore Police have a ‘no chase’ policy when it comes to the bike gangs, as they don’t want pedestrians to find themselves in the midst of a hot pursuit. But this poses the problem of how to crack down on them. We see bikers swarm the streets, flicking off officers and literally kicking squad cars with little retribution, but when we find ourselves in the passenger seat of a truck towing stashed bikes, on the run with a police chopper tailing above, there is a very real sense of danger. Nathan allows us to be that young kid looking on in awe, trying desperately to convey confidence, and yet worry is still written all over our face.
Whether they know it or not, Pug and his outlaw mentors are vying for control. With a battle cry of roaring of engines, the act of riding seems almost acrobatic performance art expressing their impoverished discontent with the indignancies they live with day in, day out. 12 O’Clock Boys manages to harness these acts at both a heartrending personal level, with Pug, and a disparaging cultural level, venturing out into the community to witness the on street onslaughts first hand, even-handedly speaking with policemen and bikers alike. What Nathan has exquisitely captured within is a vicious poverty-induced cycle of dirt-bike rebellion. Like a war ravaged snow globe, we can look in on the chaos, but there seems no escape for those trapped inside.
Reviewed on April 25th at the 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival – International Spectrum Programme. 76 min