Crystal Moselle’s documentary THE WOLFPACK, is a mysterious and sensitive probing of the Angulo family – six brothers, with Sanskrit names - Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krsna and Jagadisa, now ages 16 to 23, a “special needs” sister, and their parents, Oscar and Susanne, who live in NYC Public Housing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Over a period of five years, the director Moselle shot approximately 500 hours of footage recording lives that were anything but conventional; encountering them on one of their rare neighborhood outings, a crew of six brothers dressed in black with sunglasses and dark flowing hair. She became their first friend and ultimately a catalyst for change. What is so intriguing is the fact that the entire family rarely left their small apartment (one year they never went out at all), the father being the only one with a key keeping everyone under secure lock, including his wife who supported them by home schooling the children. Oscar Angulo who is seen in home movies, often drinking, and engaging with his offspring in “questionable” ways that made me uneasy – spouting philosophical sound bites reminiscent of the 1960s, fashioning himself as a highly “evolved” person who had a mission to protect his brood, absolutely convinced that there was a “safe” world inside and a “dangerous” one beyond the warren that was their refuge from the evils lurking within the big city.
Susanne, like a mother cat lolling on a bed with her kittens nestling close by, splayed about in every direction, comforted by an adult’s loving presence – was unable to defy her husband’s bizarre authoritative control over the household, yet she was able through her teaching to fuel their original and fanciful spirits. We are privy to what life was like growing up within the confines of a small space, never leaving the enclave to venture outdoors; the cosmos is isolated and narrow, but also richly imagined.
The father begins to bring movies into their home – a collection of over 5,000 DVD’s and Videotape Cassettes that the Angulo boys’ catalogue - and an alternate universe is studied, imitated and explored. The manipulative Goliath looming over their lives inadvertently becomes the source of their survival and ultimate liberation. Acting, performing, directing, making delightful masks and props out of cereal boxes, yoga mats, and other detritus including clothes brought home by Oscar, rummaged from throwaways in NYC garbage bins; typing and performing scenes word-for-word from films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, etc. mutates the boredom of their existence into an electrically agitated collision of the “reel” world with “reality” as seen through the eyes of various directors.
Between wild maneuvers, the boys acrobatically leaping in the air with the grace of youth, their long pony-tails flapping skyward, feigning death by flying bullets shot out of aluminum wrapped guns, and acting out the excruciatingly extreme violence of horror films, Crystal Moselle asks questions – and the responses are so genuine, awkward and shy that I barely could hold back tears for the tragic circumstances that non-socialization accorded them. Shaky amateur movies chronicle the Angulo children’s development, communicating their silent childlike observations, as we witness the transformations that occur once they mature and began to challenge the strictures that they were living under - eventually having the courage to defy their father and venture outside.
The window looking down at the street from on high is a persistent motif and seductively photographed - colors illuminating the changing seasons vivifying the neighborhood’s daily routines, particularly holiday parades which punctuate special events. In one particularly moving segment on Halloween, the Angulo boys replicate the costumed children parading up and down the street; so they too march around the apartment dressed in marvelously handcrafted outfits which communicate both horror and beauty.
There are many poignant moments in the evolution from isolation to autonomy. Investigating the natural surroundings is a fresh and enchanted adventure as seen through the eyes of the new-born “wolfpack” traveling together like a single organism – a tribe made up of six individual members on their reconnaissance discoveries. Going down the elevator of your building for the first time conscious of being both anxious and euphoric; experiencing the icy winds and wet breezes on your face and back; stepping into the air and inhaling the diverse scents of the city; attending your first movie in the balcony of a theater; and taking a trip to Coney Island tentatively dipping one’s foot and then one’s body into the buoyant salty water are all deeply momentous occasions.
Whoever believes that the fantasy milieu of films lack the power to enrich lives is proven wrong by THE WOLFPACK. Both hopeful and challenging, this movie leaves many questions open for exploration, and I for one am rooting for the Angulo clan to realize their dreams. The future though fraught is one they now have the opportunity to wrestle with.