You can synopsise The Wolfpack in one sentence and see why it has become such a hit: a group of long-haired siblings spent their childhood locked in a Manhattan apartment, never venturing into the outside world, and passing the years by re-enacting blockbuster movies. But the immediate narrative appeal of Crystal Moselle’s debut feature could have also been a weakness. When a subject is so suited to documentary, as the Angulo brothers are, it is easy for the storytelling to become shallow and exploitative.
Moselle’s feature debut never sacrifices complexity for spectacle. Our introduction to the Angulo brothers is a faithful re-enactment of Reservoir Dogs, but the movie escapism story is soon sidelined – as Moselle says, “I realised later that it was not as interesting as the actual story of this family." The brothers were kept in a de facto prison by their hippie father – whose individualism was a pretext for despotism – and a fearful mother – who emerges the most complex character. When their son Mukunda leaves the apartment by himself, he instigates a crisis in authority. This is not a film about the movies after all, but a nuanced account of the politics of fear and the value of family.
We spoke to Crystal Moselle at HotDocs Festival in Toronto about her friendship with the boys, her methodology, and what it was like to show them the film.
GFW: Hi Crystal. How did you meet the Angulo Brothers?
Crystal Moselle: I was walking down First Avenue in New York City and I saw these six kids weaving in-and-out of traffic and I instinctually ran after them down the street. I asked, “Where are you guys from?” They were a little bit shy, then one asked what I did for a living and I told them I was a filmmaker and then they got really excited. Then we became friends.
Were they worried when strangers came up to them?
Yeah, people had been coming up to them all day because they’re so amazing looking. They all have long hair and sunglasses and suits – so they really stood out. But they wanted to talk to me because I was a filmmaker.
How did you go from there to entering their apartment?
We became friends and would hang out in the Park and talk about movies. Our common thread was an obsession with movies. I showed them cameras and then, eventually, they invited me to come over to their house.
Had they told you about the peculiarity of their lives yet?
No, no. I had no idea what was really happening for like a year. My cousins were home schooled; I’m from California where there are all different sorts of family set-ups. So I just thought, “Oh they just do things differently." But I didn’t realise how enforced it was.
Was that when you thought this could be a film?
I think I was already filming them and I was like, “I’ll do a cool film of these kids making a film." I realised later that it was not as interesting as the actual story of this family.
I’m from California where there are all different sorts of family set-ups so I thought, “Oh they just do things differently”. But I didn’t realise how enforced it was.
Their re-enactments are a perfect entry into their lives. When did they start performing for you?
The first time we hung out, we were in Washington Square Park and they did a re-enactment of Platoon – or maybe it was The Deer Hunter – in the fountain.
What did the re-enactments mean?
It was their way of going into another world, of creating something outside of the world they were living in which was at times very painful. There were a lot of restrictions on their lives and by playing these gangsta-esque characters, they’re able to feel some sort of power.
How did they get hold of the films they watch? It’s funny that despite their parents’ moral restrictions they were allowed to watch ultraviolent and scary films.
Their dad would go to the library or find them on the street. They would ask for things. They saw Pulp Fiction on television and asked for other films by Tarantino. Kids watch horror films but showing your kid The Exorcist at age four is crazy. Maybe their father felt bad that they couldn’t go out…
The mother emerges the most interesting character. Was she worried about their private lives becoming public knowledge?
I don’t think she was worried; I think she was the opposite of worried. At one point, she told me, “I told my kids twelve years ago that one day somebody will tell our story”. I think that it was a way for them to get out the situation.
She’s very stuck in the middle of the situation. She loves her husband and she knows what happened wasn’t right but she’s also under a certain amount of mind control and it’s hard to get out of that situation. But she’s amazing. She’s stepping out and doing what she wants to do now.
Is the dad still in the apartment?
Yeah he’s still there. By the time I got to the story, they’d completely taken over the household and the power was reversed. He really regressed to this child-like character.
Fear is instilled in them from a young age. There’s a shot from one of their home videos of the World Trade Centre – which makes one think of the politics of fear that followed 9/11.
They saw the towers go down. It definitely emphasised that fear. When asked before, “Why didn’t you ever go outside?”, and they said, “What are we doing to do out there? We have no friends; we don’t know where anything is." They had no gauge of what was outside and it was terrifying for them.
How did the film help them leave that mind set?
I think it definitely helped because it was giving them something to do. It was friendship at first. We would meet in the Park and look at cameras together. As time went by, I got some of their first reactions to the world. They’d say, “We want to go to the beach!” and I’d be like, “Let’s go!” and I’d film them at the beach. But they developed their own ways as time went by. That’s when I was able to capture a transformation. I think Mukunda walking out of the house was the catalyst for change, not me. But I was maybe a character within that.
When did you show them the film?
We did a screening with Bhagvan and Govinda first. It was very emotional. We all cried. Mukunda said, “I feel like I’ve gone to a hundred years of therapy and now I’m all better." Then we showed the parents. They just felt like it was very honest and beautiful. The mother really loves the film and she tries to watch it as many times as possible. She thought it was a very honest portrayal.
What has the experience taught you? Is the film pessimistic or optimistic about family?
I wasn’t going to finish shooting this film until it had an optimistic conclusion. What I learned is that humans are extremely resilient and what we go through and how we can heal ourselves – physically and mentally – is amazing. They’re so special and I’m going to be friends with them for the rest of my life, for sure. Their creativity is remarkable.
The Wolfpack is released in cinemas across the UK this week.