It's no surprise to long term readers of my reviews that I'm kind of enamoured with David Simon's Baltimore. From Homicide: Life On The Streets, through The Corner and of course The Wire (still perhaps the best programme that has ever aired on television), these fictional works exposed a very real, unique culture of inner city Baltimore in a way that remains a touchstone years after their aired.
I grant immediately that David Simon had nothing to do with the making of Lotfy Nathan's tremendous film, 12 O'Clock Boys, yet the spirit that drove Simon's shows runs throughout this work. There's something about the row houses, the grass courtyards flanked by brick low rise apartments, the dockyards seen in the distance and thickly accented "ee-you" at the end of many words ending in an "o" or "u". Rightly or wrongly, this has become Simon's B'More, and part of that epic grandeur is reflected in this film.
Nathan's work is refreshingly both epic and intimate in scope, a three year documentation of a young man named Pug who's interested in joining one of the more surreal of regional subcultures, a gang of dirtbike and quadbike wheelie specialists. Their name derives from the near vertical position they ride their vehicles at, launchin their rides skyward as they weave in an out of traffic. Explicitly, the "po-lice" have been ordered to avoid chasing these rides, but it's clear that not every confrontation is allowed to go by without some altercation.
Nathan's clear skill is in keeping to the heart of this remarkable story. Despite filming for literally years, the work runs at a brisk 76 minutes. It's a dense film, filled with line after line by the real life contributors that leaves your head shaking after a while. For example, there's Pug's mom, the ex stripper who by any rights should be seen as oblivious to her son's growing insouciance, yet still maintains that his goal of being a vet is going to be adhered to. Beyond the swearing and general marks of what some would describe as abusive, her argument is made that she buys her son nice things, proving her love.
The look on Pug's face when his bike is stolen from him on camera, the joy of him popping wheelies in his child-sized runner, and the admiration he gets from the siblings - these are vignettes of real cinematic power. The subculture itself is well documented, including interviews with some of those that started the trend. Surreptitious filming of actual swarms of these bikers is exhilarating, coupled with sublime moments of ultra highspeed photography that makes for a strange, poetic quality to the lumbering bikes drifting by at preposterous angles.
12 O'Clock Boys is one of those rare, unforgettable films, so tightly constructed and beautifully executed that it's hard not to want to watch it again immediately. Sure, some of the pleasure comes from exposure to a city and community well primed by Simon's masterworks, but that takes nothing away from Nathan's own prowess with this work. The fact that this lofty film is Lotfy's first is even more impressive, his patience and commitment to his subject matter, along with a resolute impulse to keep the tale lean and to the point, is testament to what will hopefully prove to be a remarkable career.