On Sundays, legions of dirt bike riders take to the streets of Baltimore popping wheelies, evading police, and cruising at extreme speeds. The group of riders called the 12 O'Clock Boys has inspired a new documentary out this month. The film follows a young boy named Pug for three years as he aspires to gain acceptance within the group. In the excerpt above, we are introduced to Pug and get to experience the city's bike culture through a series of ethereal slow motion images.
In an interview with The Atlantic, director Lotfy Nathan discusses this controversial subculture and his own motivations for making the film. The interview has been condensed and edited.
The Atlantic: How did you end up working on this story?
Lotfy Nathan: I was going to school in Baltimore studying fine art — I wanted to be a painter. I had seen them around the way, and I approached it naively. This is my first film, and I wasn’t expecting to be able to access the group, but they were receptive. It was really an organic process.
How long did you spend on the film?
First day was in 2007, I probably did a couple more in 2008, then a few in 2009. In the beginning, I was really still fishing for material and for lack of a real story, I was getting a subculture. But then I was introduced to Pug in 2010 when I was looking for a character to carry the story.
What about the film’s topic inspired you to work on it for six years?
I think the meaning built over time. It kept changing. First the visual, you know, trying to illustrate those components, but then the subjects themselves and the heart involved.
Were people ever opposed to your presence with a camera?
Absolutely, sometimes I would get a little overzealous. Looking back now, I can’t believe how foolish I was. Basically shoving my camera into everybody’s face. One time I was filming at Pug's, mostly with kids, and four or five guys that were on a nearby stoop suddenly surrounded me. They thought I was filming a drug deal. But generally, when I would say I was filming the dirt bike riders there was almost an instant acceptance, like I was with Robin Hood and his band of merry men.
Did you get a sense that the dirt bikes provide an escape for these riders?
It's definitely an escape and that’s something I really wanted to illustrate. Those seductive dreamy moments are supposed to be through the eyes of Pug, and I think that is valuable.
While the bikes serve as an escape, it also seems like riding can be incredibly dangerous. Did you feel like that was something that needed to be covered in the film?
The consequences are more underlying, I didn’t think that needed to be explicit in the film. The police and the danger are obvious, and I would never dismiss that.
But it is a situation that is hugely full of contradictions. It’s simultaneously wholesome and meaningful, but also reckless and destructive.
It depends what side you look from. What is important, is that in the context of the city, it is actually constructive for some of these kids. I don’t know if it’s a good thing, but that’s just a reality. Marginalized communities will react to certain conditions, and they are just going to need to do something. Kids like Pug need a renegade outlet. It has to be rebellious but at the same time it could be a lot worse.
In this community, it’s almost wholesome like the boy scouts. Literally outside Pug’s house, I saw the drug dealers approach him before he was thirteen and give him stacks of money to throw in the air. These are the only people on his block that he sees as successful. When somebody has a Lexus and is happy, it’s seductive, and he’s fighting against that.
Can the police chase the riders?
It’s not actually illegal to chase the bikers but the police collectively opt not to. But on one occasion, I was following the bikes in a truck down at the inner harbor and out of nowhere a police officer came through on a dirt bike. But that tactic didn’t last, [it felt] almost too Hollywood.
Do you get a sense that city dirt bike riding is a growing trend that exists in other cities?
It’s definitely strongest in Baltimore because of the lawlessness of the city, the layout, and how extreme the crime can be — the bikers can just run around. Like I said earlier, it’s a Robin Hood thing in the context of Baltimore. But it also exists in Philadelphia, New York City, New Jersey. But a lot of those guys come specifically to Baltimore just to get chased.
For more information about the film visit http://12oclockboys.com/.