The 12 O'Clock Boys and Documentaries In the Age of YouTube

If you merely want footage of Baltimore’s 12 O’Clock Boys — young African-American men who ride the city streets on Sunday, their motorbikes and four-wheelers as right-angle perpendicular to the ground as physics permits — you don’t have to watch Lotfy Nathan’s documentary. “I’m trying to be on YouTube,” pre-teen main subject/aspirant rough rider Pug says, and that’s where hours of action can be found. You can check what’s plausibly claimed as a record wheelie, a sustained 5+-minute shot that’s something like Béla Tarr in Baltimore:

You can go for a more overtly braggadocio-laden version backed by a track promising “real sh*t tonight”:

Or check out messy provocateur/reportage footage with self-explanatory titles like “stuntn in front the law”:

Nathan’s film isn’t Pug’s conduit to online celebrity, though it’s sometimes shot in the same necessarily frantic fashion when the camera’s hastily concealed from police and left to stare at a dashboard. As the first great wave of amateur online video super-saturation maintains its seemingly perpetual crest, anyone looking for (often raw, graceless) visual information dumps from virtually any contemporary location is probably in luck. The documentary’s task is to take the same footage anyone could find, capture or upload (assuming they had a mind to), and impose new meanings on it.

To get beyond big-screen YouTube, Nathan starts with NFL Films-esque super-slo-mo visions of the wheelie boyz in action; that plus observing three years in Pug’s life form the empathy-/eye-catching scaffolding for a systematic airing of grievances — against dangerous neighborhoods, Baltimore’s endemically problematic police system, structural racism, etc. Those speaking know their actions and rants will be later sculpted and presented by a friendly outsider to an audience beyond the boys’ usual YouTube fans: peers, random viewers drawn down unpredictable viewing K-holes, stunt gawkers, whoever.

Documentaries like “12 O’Clock Boys” start from a place of more-or-less conventional observation on a parallel track with examples freely available online, then deploy overt aestheticization or other unmistakable manifestations of a strong POV to keep viewer attention. Lofty’s subjects measure how they register on Nathan’s camera as opposed to other conduits: Pug has his visions of YouTube, mother Coco jokes (?) that she wants her own single mother reality show (“Coco & The Kids”). As the movie progresses, we see others documenting races up and down the streets with iPads, the tablet’s introduction serving as a measure of the time passing over the movie’s 2010 to 2013 shoot. An implicit question throughout is what takes this above and beyond either another celebratory record of dangerous stunts (like fan-/self-made videos) or condemnatory tract (like local news reports). Multiple alternate perspectives are embedded in a film that never tries to reconcile them.

A generally accepted rule of thumb for purely informational histories and profiles is that boring form is acceptable if it provides access to rare footage or anecdote-rich interviews inaccessible elsewhere, an annoying trade-off most everyone will accept at some point when fascinated by a particular subject. I’m an impatient formalist, but as a fan I recently watched “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me,” a pretty wretchedly made documentary whose major draws are interviews with surviving band members and their friends and neighbors. For that much, transcripts would suffice: some very early home movies of the band in their early days are the big visual rarity, every single basically unremarkable second stretched out in endless slo-mo.

That’s an extreme example of attenuating/abusing an exclusive you just can’t find on the Internet. A charitable point of comparison for boring docs assembling sporadically available footage is to a bundled cable/internet package: you could get this stuff separately, but isn’t it easier to have it pulled together for you and know it’s always in one place? No guarantees, of course, what will remain on YouTube and what will be pulled, potentially to return and disappear repeatedly at the whims of assorted lawyers.

Conscientious verité types often include at least one moment when their behind-the-camera presence is actively acknowledged by their subjects; an updated additional requirement may be including or at least glancing at alternate media records of the same actions. Recent examples: last year’s “Leviathan” implicitly measures its radically disorienting depiction of commercial fishing against the comparative fakery of “Deadliest Catch,” heard but not seen blaring from a TV aboard the vessel. On a functional level, there’s sometimes not much difference between what’s shown in “Detropia” and the quasi-popular sub-genre of videos in which connoisseurs of urban devastation explore the Detroit’s most abandoned areas. If in too much in a hurry for “At Berkeley”’s four hours, you could settle for some random video of the 2010 “Day of Protest” it includes — not the same thing at all, but if it’s just you-are-there footage you want, there are potential alternate cuts of everything online.

15 years ago Werner Herzog declared that “the so-called Cinema Verité is […] the truth of accountants” to explain why he was comfortable making documentaries more staged than not. Once bemusedly regarded as another over-the-top Herzogian pronouncement, his words seem to have been taken up and justified by the increasing high profile accorded to the hybrid documentary merging fact/fiction (“chimera” is the up-and-coming term). The raw informational component — this event happened here and was captured for the record — has never seemed less like a determining criterion for a documentary’s worthiness; it’s organizing and differentiating a perspective that matters.