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Dirtbike riders in a still from 12 O'CLOCK BOYS
Dirtbike riders in a still from 12 O'CLOCK BOYSCourtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

The dirt bikers of Baltimore

The freewheeling 12 O'Clock Boys rule the streets of Baltimore and star in a documentary about brotherhood

“They call them 12 O’Clock Boys because they drop the bike straight back. If you get to 12 o’clock, you the shit.” So says Pug, the child star of Lotfy Nathan’s intimate, enthralling documentary about the Baltimore dirt bike gangs who rev and wheelie through town, with police cars and birds [helicopters] in pursuit. It’s part shaky hand-held footage of the chase, part lush cinematic slow-mos set to contemporary celestial song. The dirt bikers are a divisive group in the city: on the one hand they’re vilified for wasting police time and injuring – even killing – bystanders and themselves; on the other, they’re talented showboaters, street idols and – best of all – it's an escape from gang life (one rider says how being in the group offers them neutrality in areas riddled with rivalries). Aside from offering well-researched insight into the subculture, the film is a touching portrait of Pug and his family (headed up by the brilliant mum, Coco), showing their downtime, their struggles and their good humour. We caught up with 27-year-old director Lotfy Nathan about the dangers of dirt bikes and characteristic charm of wannabe 12 O'Clock-er Pug.

Dazed Digital: How soon after moving to Baltimore for college did you become aware of the dirt bikers? 

Lotfy Nathan: I’d been living there a few years and seen them a couple of times. At first I didn’t think much of it, then I saw them a couple more times and they seemed really exotic, mysterious. I thought it’d be really interesting to pursue them, not expecting to get results, but they were really receptive to being filmed.

DD: They were already YouTubing themselves, so they were obviously keen on publicity.

Lotfy Nathan: Yeah, it helped to have these subjects that were about showing off to begin with. The first couple of years, the filming was very infrequent, but the summers became really intensive from 2010.

DD: The summer is when they come out to play.    

Lotfy Nathan: Exactly, it’s a seasonal sport.

DD: Had you not found Pug, do you think you could have got the same sort of access?    

Lotfy Nathan: I think because of Pug, there’s a point of entry for audiences outside of that world. I think sensitivity is a really important thing to have with something so edgy. I was really excited when I met Pug and his family. I was really amused and charmed about the moments that weren’t to do with the bikes. They’re a colourful family, and that allowed it to be more than just a subculture study.

DD: Yeah, Pug’s mum Coco talks about wanting “The Coco Show” or “Coco & The Kids”. In a way this is the best Coco show possible. As for Pug, sometimes he seems so wise, and sometimes such a child.                                                                                   

Lotfy Nathan: That was the most incredible lesson for me: Pug is a symbol of the wisdom that the kids in the inner cities have to develop. He’s got this smart alec, wary persona that I think is borne out of a lot of experience at a young age. He has to come to grips with death and loss and how treacherous his environment can be.

DD: He’s dealing with big themes. He knows that riding isn’t just riding – it’s escapism, power, brotherhood.

Lotfy Nathan: Yeah, and growing up in a place like that, he had the drug game and the gangs in Baltimore at the ready. That stuff was right outside his door, so to join the dirt bike riders – in that context – it’s a wholesome avenue.

“You bring it to an audience with a mid-Western guilt complex and then you have to answer for exploiting poor black culture. It’s bullshit”

DD: It’s nice to see Pug being a little mechanic, tinkering with his bike, taking care of it. His other obsession is animals. What do you think about him becoming a vet?     

Lotfy Nathan: I think he wants to get a job at a pet store, and that’s great, but it’s tricky to become a veterinarian. That’s an issue with the public school system, with how rebellious he is, but if it could be something nurtured, who knows? It’s really cool – he’s so into animals. He likes dogs, turtles, lizards, fish.

DD: It’s frightening how ready for death everyone is.

Lotfy Nathan: Yeah, it’s a voluntary dance with death and I think it speaks about how fragile life is in those places.

DD: There are dangers involved in dirt bike riding. How much does it affect people negatively in the city?

Lotfy Nathan: Yeah, it’s really prone to accidents. It’s scary. I don’t think it’s a right way out, but it’s a fix for the kids. Some people celebrate it and some people think it’s a terror.

DD: With documentaries like Paris Is Burning, there has been criticism about people filming a world that isn’t theirs, or exploiting their subjects in some way. Were you aware of that when you were filming?

Lotfy Nathan: The idea of exploitation often comes from people who have nothing to do with the community [being filmed]. It’s something I learned last year when we premiered the film. I wasn’t thinking about that kind of stuff. The effort was really genuine, but that stuff definitely gets questioned. You bring it to an audience with a mid-Western guilt complex and then you have to answer for exploiting poor black culture. It’s bullshit. This is clearly about relationships with the people I was filming. I don’t even know how to answer to that. Trust your own ethics and I don’t think you have to apologise for that.

12 O'Clock Boys is out on January 31 on VOD and Digital