I’ve never felt so totally lost watching a film spoken in my own language as I was watching 12 O’Clock Boys. It’s bizarre, really, just how difficult to understand many of these characters are. The only close approximation I can think of would be Trainspotting, but at least I can feel like that one is foreign-ish, since it’s from a different country. But 12 O’Clock Boys is not. It’s just set in a culture that I am not a part of and have no connection to. In fact, I would venture to guess that 90% of the festival-going public who has seen this film so far can’t really relate to the characters it follows.
That would be bad enough in a narrative film; it’s potentially ruinous for a documentary.
12 O’Clock Boys
Director: Lotfy Nathan
Release Date: 1/31/2014
The 12 O’Clock Boys do their work on Sundays. They meet in the park, 100 or more, and then take to the city streets. On their dirt bikes and ATVs, they ride, hoot, holler, and wheelie. That’s the big thing, you see, because the name refers to the fact that, when these people pull back on their bikes, their hands are at 12 and 12. Sometimes it’s a lone rider, but more often it’s a group of young men showing off their skills and just how little respect they have for law enforcement (one of the few phrases I could consistently make out was “fuck the police”). What they’re doing is illegal, and it’s illegal because it’s seriously dangerous. Although it appears to be less dangerous than one might think. The film was shot over the course of three years, and only two fatalities are shown.
12 O’Clock Boys‘ main subject is 13-year-old Pug (who ends the film as a 15 or 16-year old, but he looks 11 the entire time), a little troublemaker who just wants to join the bike gang. The son of a former-exotic dancer named Coco and an estranged father (he was in and out of prison for a while and eventually just removed from the picture altogether), Pug’s circumstances are undoubtedly difficult. And while that’s unfortunate, it doesn’t make him an inherently sympathetic character. And that’s probably because even though his desire to be part of that gang drives to film, he’s a completely flat character. There’s no emotional journey here. He wants to be in the gang, and then he rides some bikes and then he is a 12 O’Clock Boy and then his bike gets stolen (which he never actually seems more than slightly annoyed about). He’s completely emotionless and doesn’t really care about anybody else, listen to his mom, or do anything that makes him feel like a multi-dimensional person.
I’m putting that squarely at the feet of director Lotfy Nathan. There are bits and pieces of a character there developed through interviews with other people, but they never really manifest themselves in any meaningful way. Pug skips school basically every single day, and it makes his mother really mad. What does he do during this school-skipping period? I don’t know. I want to find out! The film literally never shows him do anything other than look at bikes or ride bikes, and it’s pretty unlikely that he spends all day every day looking at and/or riding bikes. He is presumably out and doing things and going places. Possibly even feeling emotions. These are the things that would make him an interesting character. None of them are in 12 O’Clock Boys.
Sometimes, the movie feels more like an advertisement for a Phantom high-speed camera than a documentary (much like how Leviathan was little more than a promotion for GoPros). There are dozens of gorgeous shots of these riders pulling back on their bikes and performing these stunts, and they are absolutely the best part of the film. Slow motion is awesome, and filming these guys doing their thing is an excellent use of the technology. You really get a sense of the intensity of the whole thing by seeing the entire process. When three or four wheels are high in the air simultaneously, with other riders flipping the bird and making faces, there’s a rush of adrenaline that makes you want to go out and do something dangerous and stupid.
Well, not really. But those moments pull you in far better than anything the characters say or do.
And I’m sure that some of the problems stem from the fact that I truly couldn’t understand what people were saying fully 50% of the time. There are a few subtitles here and there, but they subtitled the wrong sentences. The ones that have them don’t need them, and so much else does. Pug’s language is totally indecipherable the majority of the time, and he’s hardly the worst offender. There are only a couple of characters who speak clearly and concisely, and while I wouldn’t want a documentary about people who speak their own brand of English to be redubbed in a language that I can understand, more subtitles would definitely have helped. I’ve had the same issues with people from the Deep South: my New England sensibilities put up a massive cultural barrier. I expected that it would take a few minutes but I would eventually get it (that’s usually how I am with things like that), but for the entire 75 minutes I was straining to understand. Plus, they’re using slang that I don’t know, and when I’m already having trouble? Forget about it.
I want to like 12 O’Clock Boys, and there are people who will, and I expect that the vast majority of them will be able to understand the characters. I think I’m just too far removed from the culture and the filmmaker’s make no attempt to bridge the gap. The film is not an invitation for discussion so much as a matter-of-fact statement: This is who these people are, and if you don’t like it or get it, sucks to be you. And while that’s not an inherently bad thing, it is alienating, and I think it also does the characters themselves a disservice, because everybody seems so one-note.
I have trouble believing that all of these people are actually that uninteresting, simply because people in general are not that uninteresting. But if I’m wrong, and they are such boring people, why make a documentary about them at all?