Everyone who has seen Lotfy Nathan’s 12 O’Clock Boys seems to cite the dirt bike rides as the highlight of the doc. The film focuses on three years in the life of a boy named Pug as he tries to join the titular group of men who illegally ride off-road motorcycles and ATVs on the streets of Baltimore, and there’s some great slow-motion shots of these 12 O’Clock Boys (named for the way they like to speed vertically pointed up at the 12 o-clock position) as well as three thrilling action sequences involving police intervention and chase. Another notable scene is the ending, which I won’t give away but just say it’s a brilliantly creative structuring of the moment.
My favorite part in the film, though, is when Pug’s aunt appears. Here’s her dialogue: “Pug, why you didn’t tell me you got chased by the 5–0 today? I want to know what happened. [She addresses Nathan.] See, he don’t tell me the good stuff. ’Cause I’m the aunt. [Back at Pug.] Tell me what happened. [Pug responds, but I couldn’t catch what he says.] No, I just need to know that you’re safe, because I don’t like you to be in no trouble. I worry. My nerves are bad. [Pug tells her what happened and she concernedly addresses how the police aren’t supposed to chase the riders.] I just want you to slow down. You make my nerves bad.”
There’s some natural contradiction in the way she deals with Pug’s riding. Clearly she is worried about him (and also worried about what the cops might do) but she is also apparently excited by what he’s doing. The way she smiles when she calls the trouble “the good stuff” indicates that she has an added level of interest, one of a spectator (or whatever the equivalent pertaining to listening rather than watching is), along with her role as a caring relative.
This aligns her with both Nathan and the film’s audience in that we especially want to watch the physical danger of the sport and also the legal danger of its criminality and yet we also don’t want anyone (particularly Pug) to get hurt or arrested, nor do we necessarily want to root for any wrongdoing. Or at least we don’t want to feel like we’re doing so, as we may attempt to justify that it’s just riding dirt bikes and that it’s better than these guys being drug dealers.
On the one hand, the conflict of enjoying something that we believe is not right is a constant dilemma for documentary, made difficult perhaps by how we can rationalize equivalent material in fiction. On the other hand, 12 O’Clock Boys fits into the ongoing conversation, in and out of documentary, about extreme sports. This doc is not that unlike The Crash Reel except that it involves an illegal sport rather than one validated by a multi-million-dollar industry, as well as of course by the Olympics.
There’s one small kid in 12 O’Clock Boys who addresses the camera while his arm is in a sling boasting about how he’s been riding since age five or six. He tells of hitting a tree and being knocked unconscious, his collarbone broken, his face fractured and his teeth knocked out. But in a couple weeks, he says, he’ll be out there again. Hardly as serious as the brain injury of Kevin Pearce in The Crash Reel, but that addiction to the adrenaline rush for these guys, where they’ll get right back on the bike after nearly being killed, is the same thing. And our encouragement through watching is also equal.
Lucy Walker, director of The Crash Reel, has acknowledged the issue of us being complicit in the risk of extreme sports by watching them, though her film is neither anti-snowboarding nor pro-, and I’ve come to accept its concluding content of archival footage of Pearce performing undeniably impressive stunts on a half-pipe as leaving us to think about how we look at that footage now. Nathan has likewise addressed how his film does seem to endorse the activity he documents, but he claims he’s not exactly in favor of what the 12 O’Clock Boys do and says his greatest moral quandary was the chance that filming Pug was influencing the kid to keep with the riding. Still, the film itself neither means to support the pastime nor support its critics or enforcers of the law against it.
Documenting something doesn’t mean you endorse it, but oftentimes taking a stance of neutrality and distance can feel like a cop-out. Walker and Nathan are anything but lazily taking the passive indifference angle; they both include hints if not direct professions of how complex this sport and spectacle relationship is and how their films are up inside the matter rather than off to the side.