Written by Eamon Whalen
Photos provided by Oscilloscope Labs
Five years ago Lotfy Nathan never thought he’d have directed a feature length documentary. At the Maryland Institute College of Art, he saw the few video production courses he’d taken as an afterthought to his path as a painter.
But then he’d hear them whiz by, and see them in his periphery. Packs of dirt bike and ATV riders gliding through the streets of Baltimore, with a penchant for wheelies that stretched their bikes all the way to a 90 degree angle against the pavement, like a clock when it strikes midnight. Stunts that seemed to defy both death and physics, not to mention city authorities, who aren’t allowed to chase them for fear of public safety. The stunts awarded riders nicknamed “Wheelie Wayne” and “Superman” fans around the world for their homemade youtube highlights films, and flocks of onlookers from the neighborhoods they hail from and ride through.
Lotfy found them captivating, yet altogether misunderstood in the part of Baltimore where he spent his time. So captivating, that what he once considered an afterthought became Lotfy’s choice medium for the next five years as the British born, Boston raised twenty-seven-year old of Egyptian descent began to capture the sensational subculture in what is now his first feature length documentary, “12 O’Clock Boys.”
What he came to realize is that the “12 O’Clock Boys” are high octane road warriors on the surface, but underneath lies a true system of mentorship. A rebellious exercise of power. A declaration of neutrality in neighborhoods divided by an over forty-year-old drug war. And perhaps most of all, a necessary release from the doldrums of the modern American ghetto, or what former Baltimore Sun journalist David Simon would call one of “Two Americas,” in a speech published by The Guardian.
Simon is better known as the co-creator of lauded HBO epic television show The Wire. It was a series that took a critical look at the institutional dysfunction of Baltimore, as well as the disastrous results the war on drugs and loss of meaningful work have had on the inner city. The breadth of the show’s analysis from the police station to the capitol to the drug corners, along with it’s popularity, allowed Lotfy an informed backdrop to build on. From the row houses, to the grass courtyards and brick low-rise apartment-lined streets, they’re clearly in the same terrain.
“I think that people obviously learn from movies and television, and with that there is a lot of responsibility, but I think [The Wire] did it really well. I can say that it does really reflect Baltimore, and you can continue to riff off that,” said Lotfy on a phone call from his new home in New York.
‘It provided a lot of answers to a global audience about Baltimore. So there was less that someone like me might have to explain,” he continued.
And so for two years Lotfy filmed the riders, usually on Sunday, their day of “critical mass.” He was unsure of a narrative or what all his footage would amount to until some of the riders told him about a kid named Pug. “There was definitely something to him. He was speaking just like the older guys but had this high pitched voice. You know, this little underdog,” said Lotfy.
Lotfy constructs the crux of the film around Pug, following him and his growing obsession with being a “12 O’Clock Boy” for three years. Stunning slow motion dream-like shots of continually awe-evoking wheelies are cast against a score by Joe Williams and a running monologue from Pug, explaining their significance through his own teenage filter.
In The Wire, Simon chose to show the stark reality of the “Second America” through identifiable, thoroughly human characters, as opposed to data or statistics. Lotfy does the same with Pug. A pre-teen who balances beyond-his-years bad-boy charisma and increasingly adult vocabulary with a fascination for animals and a quietly held aspiration to be a veterinarian. “Regardless of where you come from you can see this vulnerability on his face. He looks innocent. And you can’t argue with that expression.” said Lotfy.
Even if he’s insistent that his motive was not to make an “issue film,” he does acknowledge his desire to present innocence and identifiability in the middle of the fear-striking subculture. “To be able to make an audience care about a person on screen within the first ten minutes, to have that strong, emotional link is a blessing for a filmmaker,” he said.
Lotfy could also tell that he was capturing Pug’s life at what was a critical point for young men in his neighborhood. “He was at a turning point. I learned that that age is so pivotal in Baltimore because you have innocence, and then a conscious decision to decide what kind of man you want to become at a very early age. And it’s a requirement that a kid Pug’s age [sic] find what kind of man he wants to be,” he said.
In Eugene Jarecki’s documentary “The House I Live,” Simon remarked that to turn down selling drugs in neighborhoods like Pug’s would be the equivalent of turning down a coal mining job in the 1940s. It’s become one of the only viable economic models for those neglected by the post-industrial economy, that happen to be poor and Black and Brown. To escape that vocation one would need a hell of a support system, and a hell of a hobby.
Most of Lotfy’s footage was captured while riding with Steven, a former rider introduced early on in the film. Steven plays what he refers to as the “supportive role” from his SUV, watching out for the “birds,” what they call the helicopters that the police have resorted to in order to stop the riders. The supportive role extends to his relationship with Pug and other kids at that crucial age, as he drives them out of the city and teaches them to ride on a closed dirt course. He remarks that it “takes a village” to raise a kid like Pug.
Lotfy was sure to say that this kind mentorship system centered around the dirt bikes is not rare or built up for the sake of the movie. “I came to realize that’s what the whole thing was about, this kind of mentorship program, and they take it very seriously,” he said.
Aside from the flash and thrill, a certain kind of virtue is revealed in the 12 O’Clock Boys. In an anecdote, a rider comes to the conclusion that “[when it comes to gangs] when you ride a bike, it’s like you’re neutral.” In another story, founding “12 O’Clock Boy” Superman speaks of a rider who he says had begun cleaning up his life after he started riding, before he was struck and killed by former Baltimore police officer Albert Lemon.
Lotfy uses Officer Lemon to show the sobering truth about the dangers of riding. Lemon estimates that ten to fifteen people die each summer from dirt bikes. “We’re not allowed to chase them because it’s a violent act, but isn’t riding a violent act in itself,” he remarks in the film. But with Baltimore city sporting a growing murder rate that bucks an overall national statistical trend of a lowered homicide rate, the dirt bikes present an if not perfect, tangible alternative.
“It is an alternative and a lot of the adults involved with it recognize that and take to it for their own release, because they still need it,” said Lotfy. “It has to have some edge to it, to attract kids. But at the same time, [the riders] don’t want to be involved in the quote “hard crime”, because it gets worse in Baltimore, that much is true,” he continued.
Some may frame it as the lesser of two evils, but he says take it or leave it. “I don’t necessarily believe in the lesser of two evils as a way to evoke sympathy,” he said. At the closing, viewers of Lotfy’s first film are left in a place of uncertainty with Pug at a clear departure from the child he’s introduced as. The audience is left unsure whether to greet Pug’s transition with apprehension of his possible path as a 12 O’Clock Boy, or confidence in the release and mentorship it provides him with. “The film wasn’t supposed to be a defense of dirt bike riders, but more to show where that sense of rebellion is born and what it could result in,” said Lotfy.
Five years since the 12 O’Clock Boys inspired him to seriously pick up a camera for the first time, Lotfy’s understanding of the group has shifted considerably. “At first it was a very superficial interest in the commanding presence of the group, the high octaneness of it all, that’s first. That’s still what you get out of it at the surface, and that’s still what it’s supposed to be for those guys. It’s a big release, and there isn’t much to it at the surface besides a kind of, loud thing. But obviously there is meaning behind it, and thats what I came to realize.”