JULY 14, 2015
I think the family is the place where the most ridiculous and least respectable things in the world go on.
— Ugo Betti
ONCE UPON A TIME there was a band of brothers who were held captive for years. The boys in question were not shut up in a witch’s lair or woodcutter’s hut — rather, the six Angulo brothers were raised, from 1996 to 2010, in public housing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, on welfare, on the 16th floor of a dingy, forbidding building with clanking metal security doors. While growing up they were barred by their father from leaving their apartment more than a few times a year. Some years they report not having been allowed out at all. They knew no relatives, had zero friends. Doctor and dentist visits were permitted. Their mother Susanne homeschooled them.
The brothers’ story, as presented in The Wolfpack, directed by Crystal Moselle, grabbed the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary earlier this year. Founded on the kind of salvation narrative central to a Brothers Grimm tale, The Wolfpack centers on the courage of children to effect their own liberation. The film is also a paean to the redemptive power of art. Although the brothers become heroes of their own saga, cinema is their confederate, the magic force that sustains them in their suffering, and proves instrumental in nurturing their sense of connection and selfhood, so essential for eventually effecting their release.
How did these young boys manage to escape? One day in 2010 after their father had left to buy food, the third oldest, named Mukunda, seized his chance. He knew his dad would be gone for about three hours: “Wish me luck,” Mukunda said to his littlest brother and he slipped out the door in a horror movie mask (as Michael Myers from Halloween), because in his 15-year-old mind the disguise would prevent him from being recognized if he ran into his father. Maybe this was the first time in his life he had gone anywhere solo, or for that matter, had been alone at all (if one can ever be said to be alone in the streets of mid-day Manhattan). Mukunda visited a bank, a pharmacy, and a grocery — exotic sites for someone who’d just sneaked out of nearly lifelong confinement for the first time. Eventually, of course, because he looked crazy and threatening as he wandered through local businesses in his distorted slasher mask (which conferred the exact opposite of the anonymity he was seeking), somebody called the cops, who showed up and handcuffed him. Mukunda wound up spending a week in a mental ward. He seems to have remained mum about the truth of his family situation during this brush with the authorities, as is often the case with children from severely troubled homes.
Mukunda’s escape broke the spell under which the family had lived for so long. The balance of power in the household underwent a tectonic shift. “I refuse to take your orders. I’m not going to speak to you anymore. I’m not your son anymore,” Mukunda told his father. Subsequently, the brothers decided to start making forays into their unexplored city, as a pack.
It was during one of these expeditions, in 2010, that Crystal Moselle, who’d directed commercials, music videos, and short films, and produced a documentary on Warhol acolyte Taylor Mead, saw a striking group of young dudes striding through her neighborhood. What a wild sight the pack must have been, newly burst into the world, dressed as if they’d stepped out of Reservoir Dogs, wearing large sunglasses, dark suits, and ties, long hair flying out behind them. She chased them, tried to start a conversation. Shyly, they told her they were not supposed to talk to strangers, but evidently as curious about her as she was about them, they asked what she did for a living. “When I told them that I was a filmmaker,” says Moselle, “they got really excited, exclaiming, ‘We are interested in getting into the business of filmmaking.’ We made a time to meet so I could show them some cameras.”
This chance meeting was a charmed encounter and a piece of miraculous luck for all parties. One of the brothers observes that if they’d met Moselle a year earlier none of them would have said a word to her. He laughs, “It would have been like you were meeting zombies.” In previous film work for True Religion jeans, Kate Spade, Nowness video channel, and VICE, Moselle had dealt with teenagers, and, at 30-something herself, she was neither too old nor too young for her subjects’ comfort. Being female probably didn’t hurt, and her film skills and connections, with which she was generous from day one, were a huge lure for the brothers. There seems to have been almost instant affinity between them and Moselle, both parties recognizing each other as members of the same tribe of devout cinema worshippers. Thus began a mutually beneficial interchange: year by year Moselle was able to cultivate her relationship with the brothers, as first friend, mentor, colleague, social coach, and liaison to the outside world. The pack, in turn, provided her with an astonishing subject for her feature-length directorial debut. Mukunda and his older brothers, fraternal twins Narayana and Govinda, garnered “Additional Camera” screen credit in the film. And viewers gain one of the most affecting documentaries in recent memory.
The Angulos’ story began when Oscar, a native of Peru, met Susanne, a midwestern farm girl turned hippie, while she was hiking the Inca Trail in the Andes. Oscar converted to the Hare Krishna religion, and the couple lived in a Hare Krishna Center in West Virginia for several months. Their first child, Visnu, born in 1990, was a developmentally disabled girl with Turner’s syndrome. A fleeting presence in the film, she is treated with scrupulous kindness by all.
Over the next eight years Oscar and Susanne had six sons. Like their sister, they were given beautiful Sanskrit names: Bhagavan, Govinda and Narayana (fraternal twins), Mukunda, Krisna, and Jagadisa.
In the mid-’90s, the growing family left the Hare Krishna center, and lived and traveled the States in their van, “looking for opportunities for the father to become a rock star.” That didn’t work out. One of the brothers explains Oscar’s objections to conventional employment this way, “My father doesn’t like the idea of working. He shows his rebellion by not working.” Nor was Susanne ever employed outside the house. In 1995, because they heard that cheap housing was available in New York City, Oscar and Susanne moved their brood to the Lower East Side. They lived on welfare and Susanne’s stipend from the state for homeschooling.
It is a puzzle how Susanne, presented as warmer and more talkative than Oscar, is complicit in the program of isolation. She admits darkly at one point, “I think there were more rules for me than there were for them.” Oscar, who gains more screen time in the second half of the film, is a dominating yet mysterious presence throughout. He seems to suffer from grandiosity, paranoia, and a warped, fitful mysticism. “Dad believes we’re all controlled by the government,” his sons observe. “Dad always thought he was better than everyone, that he was truly enlightened.” “He said he was god.” At one point Oscar declares, “My power is influencing everybody,” as though this was a foundational truth about the universe.
Moselle, however, avoids the temptation to villainize or oversimplify. She lets us see Oscar’s terror as he describes, decades later (in spotty English), his initial reactions to their neighborhood: the gunshots, the filth. The streets, he insists, were like “a piece of jail, out there, people offering drugs in the elevators.” Confining his wife and children to the apartment was, by his twisted logic, an act of paternal love. He braved the mean streets to buy supplies, while they stayed safe inside. That’s his spin.
Exactly what and how badly the brothers suffered is the elephant crammed into the crowded Angulo apartment. This issue is rarely confronted head-on. Moselle’s discretion permits the brothers (and their parents) to open up slowly, to whatever degree they are able, over the course of nearly five years of filming. This restraint — she doesn’t push or challenge their views or defenses — conveys respect for, and in some ways mirrors, the brothers’ collective reticence. It took four months for the boys to trust Moselle enough to invite her to their home and to take her into their confidence, leaking their story bit by bit via a shared language, film.
Moselle could have fallen prey to the mimetic fallacy by shooting solely in the Angulo apartment, in an attempt to entrap viewers in a filmic version of the brothers’ claustrophobic existence. Instead, she intersperses her footage with clips from Angulo home movies. Intermittent passages of grainy, flickering video permit us to glimpse the family when the children were small, skating and scootering down the hall, clad in elaborate costumes dancing around a small Halloween bonfire (no smoke detectors detectable!), and adorably playing cardboard musical instruments. Moselle also takes the brothers on field trips, shooting as they make maiden voyages into the subway, the ocean, and an actual movie theater. As their world starts to open up, The Wolfpack’s locations become more varied and inclusive, and Manhattan itself becomes a character in the movie.
Complicating our view of Oscar is that while he kept his family prisoner, it was he who provided the saving grace of film to his sons. Several of the brothers are careful to emphasize, “Our father is the one who brought movies into our lives.” The brothers estimate they repeatedly watched at least 5,000 movies during their childhoods, from Citizen Kane to The Godfather to Pulp Fiction to Casablanca to Batman. “He’d just fill our heads with movies all day long.” Oscar purchased DVDs and VHS tapes at discount stores or borrowed them from libraries. In a press packet interview, Moselle explains:
Their dad brought both classic and cult films to them. They liked the violent, horrific, morally complicated films the best. As they read more about movies they started to request specific films.
Obviously, keeping six healthy, growing boys cooped up in a small apartment for years called for some serious crowd control. But movies proved to be much more than a way of keeping the litter busy.
To stave off boredom and channel their wolf cub energy, the brothers not only watched films constantly, they also memorized and reenacted their favorite scenes. Whatever materials were on hand, yoga mats, cereal boxes, thrift store clothes, duct tape, tin foil, were employed to construct ingenious costumes and props: fake guns, makeshift wigs, a surprisingly good-looking Batman suit. The apartment became a sound stage for shootouts and dramatic death throes. The brothers sought movies with multiple male roles, approaching acting with the relish of professionals, talking about “getting into the mind of the character.” Thus they formed an avid, captive theater collective. Their reenactments grew into a sustaining pursuit that solidified their close-knit interdependence. You could even say that Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese became honorary fairy godfathers to the pack, bestowing the enchanted gift of cinema on six imprisoned boys, providing them an escape into rich, alternative lives. Film offered the brothers not just entertainment and distraction, but a liberating interest that led to industrious, creative, relational activity. One of the brothers says, “We had no world, so we had to construct one.” Another quietly tells the camera, “If I didn’t have movies there would be no point to going on.” The Wolfpack becomes a persuasive argument for art’s vital relationship to human development.
You might expect a sextet of boys sequestered from society, raising themselves on a diet of gangster movies, to grow into a band of delinquents. Yet perhaps the most powerful and heartening aspect of this film is the revelation of how well (at least at this juncture) the brothers appear to have turned out. Moselle presents them, now ages 16 to 23, as remarkably gentle young men. The viewer waits for a burst of mean-spiritedness, a spike of nasty anger, an emotional explosion (all of which they are mightily entitled to). But it never comes. Even during moments when they talk about loneliness and fear, when they fret about being unlovable or fitting in, or when they tiptoe around the subject of what was done to them, they emanate not violence but uncommon sweetness and forbearance — not the first qualities that come to mind as characteristic of American adolescent males. Against all odds, at least in the context of this hopeful film, the brothers are an appealing group of bright, eager film nerds — each reserved in his own way, each his own auteur. Their film obsession appears to have enabled them to endure confinement, develop artistically, and hone an exemplary work ethic. They emerge from captivity saner than anyone had a right to hope.
By the film’s end, the family is in the midst of radical transformation. Govinda has moved out. The rest of the clan still occupies the same apartment, but Oscar has been fully deposed. His sons are now running things, in consultation with their mother. Indeed, the brothers remain staunchly protective and solicitous toward Susanne. “Our mom always kept our sanity,” one says. While Oscar shuffles around glassy-eyed, drinking, and receding into some private world, treated by some of his sons as a resented guest, Susanne appears to be on an opposite trajectory. She seems to be blooming, almost getting younger. She begins to jog, to have contact with nature, and to connect by phone with relatives from whom she has been estranged for decades. After Mukunda’s rebellion, she says, proudly, “I was glad to see my kids standing up for their own beliefs and ideas.”
Narratives of escape and liberation are among our most thrilling and transcendent, allowing us to cling to the idea that we can free ourselves from whatever fetters us. Is it too romantic to ask if the six Angulo brothers are a bit like young princes in some instructive fable, having survived great dangers by means of their love for each other, their resilience and inventiveness, and the magical intervention of cinema? Dare we hope that as reward for their suffering, the complexities and depths of which we will never know, they will live happily ever after? Does it ever work that way in real life? Can one ever underestimate the wages of serious childhood trauma? The brothers’ story is still very much unfolding. And those other brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, provide no real predictive help here. Their folk tales never carry us much beyond the climactic moment of escape and redemption, in which the witch is killed, the rightful king restored, or the hero freed from enchantment and married off to his true bride. That’s where fairy tales end.