The Spinx famously asked all travellers to Thebes, “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?” In life, as in Lotfy Nathan’s debut film, the answer is man. And although the progression in the 12 O’Clock Boys is from four wheels to two, the sun hasn’t always set before the riders are enfeebled.
Following the efforts of twelve year old Pug as he attempts to join the 12 O’Clock Boys, the film presents the pivotal years of change in one of the most dangerous and economically depressed cities in the United States.
It’s a coming of age story, but what does it mean to be a 12 O’Clock Boy?
12 O’Clock to the riders literally means pulling off a perfect wheelie. Getting your bike vertical, almost like the hands of the clock. But to become a 12 O’Clock Boy at large is to become part of this community which is built on rebellion, on showmanship, on sport and a kind of way of edification for kids in Baltimore.
What’s the general community view of the 12 O’Clock Boys?
There is no general view, because there isn’t a general view in Baltimore period. It’s a very divided city, it’s a chequerboard city. Communities differ greatly from block to block. In certain parts of the city they’re regarded as a terror. In other parts they’re heroes. It depends where you are, in some parts of the city they’re just annoying.
What did you have to do to gain access?
I just approached them with a genuine interest. It was rumoured from where I was living in Baltimore at the time that they were drug dealers or a gang. But either way they seemed kind of sensational, mythical. Like some kind of bandits. I approached them and they were really into being filmed.
Three years is a very long time to spend with someone, did that familiarity affect how you edited it in the end?
We were definitely dealing with a lot of delicate material and some difficult stories. But ultimately being close with them allowed you to be less apologetic in building the edit and deciding what to put in there. Because otherwise there’s usually this kind of political correctness or delicacy which I think a lot of time is patronising.
It can come across as exploitation if it’s done badly…
A lot of this footage can read like voyeurism or exploitation. But I never saw it like that because I was close with these people and I was admittedly very naïve but I just feel that that made for a more honest portrait.
Was it difficult to remain objective and not become paternalistic?
It was difficult but I wasn’t trying to… Where it would be effective to have it in the film I was fine with my subjectivity being in there explicitly because I believe that that subjectivity exists in that kind of work no matter what you do. For me, maintaining objectivity wasn’t necessarily important. It was more about effectiveness and entertainment.
When Pug got his bike stolen and then starts trying to get it back it reminded me of The Bicycle Thieves; except that Pug might actually be better off without his bike. Did you have to guide Pug to go and get it?
No, no, no. I didn’t guide Pug there, but there is a certain uncertainty around that portion that I like to keep ambiguous. But either way, at the same time you see that Pug is a very strong willed kid and he comes from a world that I don’t and I don’t pretend to prescribe him some solution in my coming and going.
The film ends with Pug stating that “Tomorrow is promised to no man.” He seems to say it so casually, is this really something he believes in?
It’s something that he lives by and he really, truly has to live by it because death in that community is so prevalent. It’s ever present. And Pug at 13 or 14, I saw this kid who had an understanding of life and death that I don’t have and a lot of people will never have and I saw how delicate that is. I never felt like I could go in there… I mean I could give my advice and try and tell him what I thought was important but he’s from a different world.
There’s lots of police activity, but to me their behaviour seems more anti-social rather than criminal. Is this a rich whites versus poor blacks thing?
[Long pause] In a way. I would just say that it’s almost absurd because it’s like…a lot of it’s a poor, inner-city black community who want to take part in this sport because it’s for rich white people. There are no trails in the inner-city for that kind of experience but for some reasons they insist on doing it anyway.
And what it has evolved into on the part of the police is to keep these guys in order and to keep them from hitting the streets, but for the riders that became part of the allure as well. The escape and this kind of high-octane situation. So it’s kind of a combination of being born out of the constraint and some kind of abstract desire.
When they get out there on Sundays they really do see a lot of the city. You get kids who experience a certain block radius for much of their lives, and then you see them tear through the streets as adults with strangers who are taking them in and they’re going all over the city. They’re going downtown, to the tourist areas, conquering the street. It’s like a feeling of empowerment to say the least.
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