The Fascinating New Documentary You Won't Be Able To Shake
The Wolfpack, about a family of brothers who rarely left their Manhattan apartment while growing up, was one of the biggest breakouts at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. It raises as many questions as it answers.
PARK CITY, Utah — On the evening of Jan. 25, six brothers, all clad in black suits and sunglasses, stood in front of a movie screen as a crowd at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival gave them a standing ovation. The Wolfpack, the feature documentary centered on the Angulos, had just premiered at the festival, and — however audiences felt about the film itself — the brothers' mere presence in Park City was enough to not only bring those in attendance to their feet, it also had some audience members in tears. After all, according to the film, as of just a few years ago, these six young men had barely stepped foot outside of their New York City apartment in their entire lives.
After the premiere, The Wolfpack quickly became one of the biggest breakout films at Sundance, ultimately winning the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize and getting snapped up for distribution by Magnolia Films (which is planning for a release in the second quarter of 2015). It's not surprising, considering the uniqueness of The Wolfpack, which is presented almost impressionistically by director Crystal Moselle; there are no title cards, no talking heads, and no narrators providing context to the Angulo brothers' story, nor how Moselle came to film them. Yet, the film still leaves a profound impression, as we learn how the Angulos came to start leaving their home, and how their love for movies and filmmaking sustained them through what is presented as a painfully isolating childhood.
And the Angulo brothers' abiding passion for movies is what apparently gave birth to The Wolfpack in the first place. In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Moselle recounted serendipitously seeing the Angulo brothers while walking through New York's East Village in 2010. Fascinated by their long hair and unusual apparel — they were all dressed in black suits, like in Reservoir Dogs — she said she chased them down and asked them who they were. The kids' guard dropped after learning Moselle was a filmmaker, a friendship emerged, and at first, that's basically all it was.
"I started showing them cameras," Moselle said. "And then I would just, like, film little interviews with them. It was just this kind of collaborative thing."
During roughly the first four months of their friendship, Moselle said she realized the brothers, who ranged in age from 18 to 11 at the time, weren't just interested in movies — they communicated almost exclusively through the language of cinema, born from their habit of staging elaborate reenactments of their favorite films. "They would be like, 'We do that film!'" Moselle said. "And I would be like, 'What are you talking about?' And they said, 'Oh, we reenact it.' … I was filming them in the park once, and they did a reenactment of The Fountain. It was really beautiful. And I was, like, 'Oh, show me more!' And then they just went through the process of how they did the reenactments."
By this point, Moselle said she also began to understand the highly unusual circumstances of the brothers' upbringing. According to the film, their father, Oscar, is a Peruvian acolyte of the Hare Krishna movement, and had moved his American wife, Susanne, and their growing family into a housing project on the Lower East Side when their oldest children were very young. Fear of rampant crime in their neighborhood apparently compounded Oscar's deep mistrust of society in general and, as a result, according to The Wolfpack, they rarely left their apartment. The brothers — given Sanskrit names by their father, Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krsna, and Jagadesh — explain in the documentary that growing up, they were usually only allowed to leave their apartment a half dozen times in a year. One year, they say, they never left their home at all. Their only connection to the outside world — and their only means of expressing themselves within the tiny one bound by their apartment's walls — was through the thousands of movies their father allowed them to watch.
"I was just realizing this was a bigger story," said Moselle, who explained that she asked the brothers if she could make a documentary about them. When they agreed, she said she began visiting their family's apartment and filming them, sporadically at first, and then more regularly, over a roughly four-year span. Slowly, the brothers began opening up to her, as well as their mother, Susanne, and finally, after what appears to be a very slow thaw, their father, Oscar, as well. (According to press notes provided by The Wolfpack's Sundance publicist, the brothers' older sister Visnu has a genetic disorder called Turner's Syndrome, which stunts mental and physical development and is why she is largely absent from the film.)
The impoverishment of the Angulos' home and the brothers' unnervingly lean frames are on ample display in the film. But, Moselle said, "Nothing alarmed me where I felt like I had to call the authorities in or anything. They're a functioning family." The director credits a lot of her comfort with the family to how disarmingly articulate and even charming the Angulo brothers could be, not just while discussing their passion for cinema, but their own acutely cloistered childhoods, and inner emotional lives.
That could be a product of a radical turn of events for the family after Mukunda, at 15, evidently broke out of the apartment and wandered through the neighborhood wearing a mask of Halloween killer Michael Myers. Naturally, one can only do that in New York for so long before authorities are called, and as a result, the kids say in the film that they were forced to spend time talking with a social worker. When asked whether she had verified that account with their social worker, however, Moselle declined to answer. "That was something that I was interested in at one point, but I wasn't able to get access," she later added.
Indeed, The Wolfpack raises as many questions as it answers. At several points in the film, there is a suggestion that there may have been some kind of greater abuse within the family — one of the brothers intimates a dark event in his past that he cannot set aside. That's something about which Moselle, however, also declined to elaborate. "I just want to stay neutral with that subject," she said. "They revealed what they want to reveal in the film. And I have to respect their private lives."
Moselle told BuzzFeed News she was at pains to avoid "exploiting" the family, sighing that the film's basic description — an inside look at a pack of brothers who have never left their apartment — could cause some confusion as to how The Wolfpack could even be a documentary and not a narrative film. "I think the story in a log line sounds very sensational," she said. "It is more of an emotional story about the family rather than just this crazy thing, you know? That's the circumstance that brings us in, but it's really about them reaching out into the world."
But the decision not to allow any members of the Angulo family to speak with the press was not apparently made out of an overabundance of caution for their continued privacy. "We're just holding off on that for the release of the film," the director said. "They will be speaking to press at some point. Just not yet." While at Sundance, however, the family did at least sit for a portrait for Vanity Fair.
Navigating the line between what is truly private and what is merely personal is a dilemma facing anyone who chooses to tell someone else's story, especially when that story is as emotionally fraught as The Wolfpack, and the platform for telling it — a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival — can be life-changing. "I think that that's the nature of documentary filmmaking," Moselle said. "You're holding these people's lives in your hand."
Still, there have been some perks to the process. Moselle said she sent footage of the brothers' recreation of Quentin Tarantino's film Reservoir Dogs, which opens The Wolfpack, to Tarantino himself. And the director responded. "Quentin Tarantino said, 'They're very funny, and tell the boys wonderful work,'" Moselle recounted with a broad smile. "I, like, showed them the email, and they were losing their minds," she continued with a laugh. "I mean, seriously, they're going to be on that stage one day, showing their own film, and I'm going to be in the audience, clapping away. I know it."