As an art student in Baltimore, Lotfy Nathan would sometimes hear the sounds of roaming dirt-bike gangs. "They would invade every part of the city," he says. "They seemed kind of mythical, mysterious." So for a 2007 class on documentary filmmaking, he decided to track down the cyclists, and found that many were eager for their high-octane hjinks to be caught on-camera. But the project only turned serious after he met Pug, a pre-teen hustler who wanted nothing more than to join in on the action. "They call them the 12 o'clock boys because they drop the bike straight back, like the hands on a clock," Pug explains. "If you get to 12 o'clock, you're the shit."
But piecing together a movie from hours of amateur footage turned out to be nearly as difficult as pulling one of those titular moves. It took two Kickstarter campaigns – one in 2010 to buy hard drives and equipment, and a second last year to complete post-production – but 12 O'Clock Boys, distributed by late-Beastie Boy Adam Yauch's Oscilloscope Laboratories, is finally ready for release.
The film depicts the home life of Pug and his mother Coco, and while revealing, the footage can at times seem voyeuristic: After Coco's eldest son, Tibba, dies from complications due to his asthma, Nathan attends the viewing at a local funeral home. "In fact," adds the director, "that was something Coco wanted. It was difficult to film, but I was willing to do it. I think, for Coco, the film was a nice sounding board to get her thoughts out – it would make her explain what the hell was going on."
Since its premiere at last year's SXSW, Nathan has screened the film dozens of times, from Los Angeles to Copenhagen. But while reviews have been glowing, some have been less than enthusiastic about the angle of the film.
"I've been chewed out at some of these festivals for 'sensationalizing these criminals,'" says Nathan. "But I think that audiences are smart. People should be able to read between the lines. You get that the police are against it. You get that the riders contradict themselves, saying that they want to be left alone, but also endangering peoples' lives."
In response, Nathan chose to illustrate the law's POV with media reports, instead of retorts from the authorities. "I never tried to make it an issue film," he stresses. "Some people think documentaries are accountable for presenting all the arguments. But ultimately, I just thought it was more valuable to have the voice of the riders." It was, in fact, his pint-sized protagonist's idolizing gaze that ultimately dictated the mood of the film. "It's through the eyes," he says, "of this kid who just wants to join."