It doesn't take long to understand why a Baltimore gang of dirt bikers is called the 12 O'Clock Boys: Flying at top speeds down city streets, they flip precariously high wheelies, maneuvering their bikes to near vertical positions, like clock hands at high noon.
The police try to crack down on them, but that only adds to the gang's allure — especially for a young rider named Pug. "If I fall, I'm gonna hop back on my bike," Pug says. "Doesn't matter if I break my arm or anything, I'm hopping back on this bike."
Filmmaker Lotfy Nathan first met Pug when he was just a month shy of 13. He spent three and a half summer with the teen to create his new documentary, the 12 O'Clock Boys.
"I think it's a kind of escape for these guys; it's a kind of renegade sport," Nathan tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "But I think, looking a little deeper — and you see in Pug — what he needs is a kind of way of edification, he needs mentorship, which a lot of kids in inner-city Baltimore need. So he finds that in the group, partly because it's renegade, and partly because it's intimidating, dangerous. I think that that kind of wholesome, building thing needs to also be cut with an edge for a lot of those kids."
On what it's like when the 12 O'Clock Boys roll down the street
It's a chaotic experience. ... I first saw it on the periphery. I saw them tearing down the street. I had no idea what they were about. A lot of people in Baltimore — depending on what neighborhood you're in — don't know what they're about. ... Their presence on the street, you know, they're extremely loud, huge pack. ... I thought they were kind of bandits, or something, pirates. You know, some of them have these bandanas on their face; they certainly look intimidating from the outside. And it's all about the noise and the presence, you know. They really take over the whole city.
On the gang's intentions
It's complicated. I think it's impossible to deny that it is supposed to be rebellious. And that's why this cat-and-mouse thing with the police I think is something that's kind of brooded into part of the game. So part of it is that it's renegade, and it's a thrill in that regard. But it's also ... a kind of sport for a lot of these guys. They just happen to have a desire to ride dirt bikes, that's what they want to do. They can't get out to the county — you know a lot of these guys complain about this a lot — that they just don't have that resource. They don't have that facility and they want to do it.
On whether the 12 O'Clock Boys are a better alternative
And as far as crime goes in Baltimore — I don't like the argument of "lesser of two evils" — but you can't ignore it in Baltimore. There are so many worse options for a kid like Pug. I mean, when I met him in 2010 I remember there were drug dealers directly outside of his house, tempting him with a stack of $100 bills. Putting it in his hands, telling him to throw it up in the air. You know, a little kid who is not even 13 yet seeing that these are the only people on his block who have money. It's tempting to do a lot worse. So I think for a kid like Pug this is almost a wholesome activity.
On his love of animals and his dream of becoming a vet
He also really does love animals. It's just something that isn't nurtured as much. You see his mother in the film; she's trying her best. It's difficult for her, and it's also difficult for Pug to get that kind of attention in the school system in Baltimore for example. The dirt bikes are just an open invitation. It's an institution in Baltimore that's very easy to join.
On how he got to know Pug over the course of three and a half summers
I think I saw the egg crack, you know. It was starting to happen when I met him. Like I said, he was kind of emulating the older guys, he was talking like them. He was deciding what kind of man he wanted to be at the beginning, in 2010 when I met him. And then by the end I think he was just a lot more determined. He had lost his older brother [who had died] ... His word started to take over, above other people. Above the authority of his mother, the authority of his teachers, his own friends.
On whether he "joins" the gang
It's not necessarily a matter of joining the group. There's no initiation, per se. It's just a matter of keeping up. His mother is still really fighting for him not to go out in the street, and he does listen to her enough to abide by that. But it's also after a certain time he's just going to do it if he wants to.
On what he's up to now
Pug is 16. ... He's still in school. He also is more interested in girls now. ... I knew that would take over. I tried to tell him that actually. ... He's liable to go in any direction, but he's also got limited options, living in Baltimore. And I try to tell him that his salvation would be to really try hard at school. It's just difficult to communicate at that age.
On how he still talks about becoming a veterinarian
I think he might start by getting a job at a pet store.