Crystal Moselle on The Wolfpack: Home Movies

Seven bright kids spent a childhood locked up in their apartment, with movies as their only friends. We talk to documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle about her time with the pack

Feature by George Sully | 03 Aug 2015

The ‘forbidden experiment’ is a concept familiar to sociolinguists: what would happen if you deprived a child of all social interaction from birth? What would that do to their language, their psyche? Could we solve the unsolvable nature v nurture debate? The experiment is, of course, forbidden for a reason: it is prohibitively unethical.

The Wolfpack might not be as extreme as this hypothetical study, but it certainly skirts the same questionable ethics. In this debut documentary feature from Californian Crystal Moselle, there is a sense of having stumbled upon something truly unique.

The Angulo family consists of six teenage brothers – Mukunda, Narayana, Govinda, Bhagavan, Krsna, and Jagadisa – and their sister, Visnu, sequestered in a Manhattan high-rise. Growing up, they are permitted egress exceptionally rarely. The father, Oscar, has the only key. The mother, Susanne, earns a bursary by homeschooling. For entertainment, Oscar allows a diet of movies on VHS and DVD, and the children – so enrapt – painstakingly recreate their favourites. Without the internet, they hand-type screenplays and fashion props from cereal boxes and yoga mats. It’s a remarkable real-world tale of resilience and escapism.

We speak to the director before the film’s screening at Edinburgh International Film Festival. She’s a little jet-lagged but otherwise chirpy, her West Coast drawl peppered with liberal 'like's and 'totally's. Born in California, Moselle moved to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts, where an autonomous approach to filmmaking was encouraged. "I’m just more independent and I like to do my own thing," she recalls. "They would give us cameras, and we could just go do our films on our own."

This fostered an opportunism that stayed with her long after graduating. Moselle recounts the fluke of encountering the Angulo children: "I was walking down First Avenue, New York City, and they ran past me. They had this long black hair, and sunglasses, and I think they were all dressed in black. Just something about it was very intriguing, and I instinctually ran after them." She met them at a crossing, and was met with a portentous icebreaker. "Govinda asked me, ‘What is it that you do for a living?’ And I told them that I was a filmmaker. He said, ‘Oh, we’re interested in getting into the business of filmmaking.’ I didn’t know their backstory at all. They were interesting people; I liked hanging out with them. They were very articulate, and had an openness that you don’t see every day in New York."

With some 455 hours of footage filmed over several years, "the biggest obstacle was probably whittling the story down," Moselle tells us. "We didn’t even realise what it was until we got in the edit room.

"I think the biggest change was when I had this talk with Mukunda," she explains. "He basically said that they grew up on fear, and that was getting in their way. And he saw that, which was amazing, ’cause that’s so self-reflective, to be able to see that."

Much of the film’s tension stems from the father, Oscar Angulo. A shadowy, paranoid deity-figure, the boys speak of him in fearful tones; there are implications of domestic abuse and alcoholism. However, when he eventually speaks, almost an hour into the film, his presence is feebly mortal. "The first part of the film is [the boys], telling the story about their family through their eyes," Moselle elaborates. "I think that if we brought the father in earlier to tell that story with them, it wouldn’t make sense... I feel like their dad, at this point, had been defeated."

The film may look back on their childhood (there are reams of home video footage), but it’s as hopeful and forward-looking as it is retrospective. Moselle had arrived at a juncture in their lives where they were beginning to seize independence out of their father’s loosening grip.

Why had Oscar restricted his family so severely? "I think there was just a lot of control and, I think, fear," she suggests. "He was saying that he didn’t want society to affect them, he wanted them to make their own choices."

“I feel like the boys are doing really great on their own... I don’t feel like they’re helpless at all” – Crystal Moselle

His vision was of a self-sufficient family-tribe, inspired by his Hare Krishna background. He feared the corrupting influences of the materialistic outside world. When questioned in the film, his response is tragically ironic: "We are victims of the circumstances of life."

"I think there were a lot of great things that came out of it," suggests Moselle. "These kids are articulate and creative and intellectual. But they didn’t wanna be cooped up like that. That’s the biggest thing: what would they want? Every day they wanted to go play outside. There’s footage of them looking down at the playgrounds and filming it through the window. It’s so sad."

The images speak volumes. "I think the window is a character in this film," she posits. "Sometimes they said it was almost like a television... They were pretty far up so they could see a lot. Like they were caged in the sky or something."

The trailer, and most synopses, frame the brothers’ meticulous reenactments as a panacea for their imprisonment. We are invited to gawk at this peculiar brood and their cute obsession with cinema. When asked if there were any clips she wanted to include but couldn’t, Moselle replies: "Tarantino’s birthday. They celebrate all their favourite directors’ and actors’ birthdays."

But no humane metric would levy video reels as adequate compensation for a childhood starved of sunshine, friends, and parks, and very little conversation surrounding this film seems to tackle the enormity of this isolation. The boys say that Moselle is their first guest. That’s almost two decades without external contact. It’s an immutable facet of their upbringing, and as viewers we can only watch, helpless.

Moselle maintains that movies are a positive force for them. "It’s like this language that we can all speak together," she says. "That was one of the things that the boys discovered when they first started going out... ‘What’s your favourite movie?’ That’s always their first question."

The films that became their windows on to the world – the sweary hyperviolence of Tarantino and Nolan – might also be cause for concern. "I think that earlier on, maybe it wasn’t the best influence," Moselle concedes. "But also they’re able to take on these characters that had a lot of power, and I think that maybe it helped them exercise that."

It could be argued that such ready acceptance of fictional personae belies a thirst for self-definition. Desperate for identity, the silver screen offered the siblings rich, though false stimuli. And as warm and personable as these brothers are, it is clear that theirs is a learned sociability, incubated within a stifling family unit. Their language is declarative, stagey: in one light, like characters in a movie; in another, borderline autistic.

When pushed on the ethics, Moselle is evasive. We ask about any legal or psychiatric followup, and she explains that "they realised... it’s not illegal to keep your kids in your house." She relates an episode referenced in the film (where "the authorities had come in and child services did come in"), but ultimately resists committing to a detailed assessment. On the one hand, she is the chronicler, not the spokesperson for this family.

But at the same time, she has taken a more active role than most documentarians, and has been instrumental in presenting the Angulos to the world. Does she feel this responsibility? "Yeah, sometimes I do," she admits. "But I feel like they’re doing really great on their own... I don’t feel like they’re helpless at all."

She adds: "I feel like this film is like the first part of this journey that I’m taking with them."

The Wolfpack won the Grand Jury Prize for US Documentary at Sundance this year, and the director has been on the press rodeo ever since. While far from insensitive to the broader issues at play, her tone is somewhat detached and she is reluctant to answer some questions in depth.

When asked about their mother, however, she lights up. "She became my friend," Moselle beams. "I think that she probably had the biggest transformation of them all." In many ways Susanne Angulo is the unsung hero of The Wolfpack: wrestling with the misguided philosophy of her husband as the mother to his children but also as the carefree hippy who fell in love with him all those years ago. By the present day, she is bubbly and forthright. "She really calls the shots at this point," Moselle attests.

In fact, the biggest lump-in-throat moment involves Susanne near the end, in the briefest of surreptitiously captured exchanges. The Skinny won’t spoil it for you here, but when we ask the director about it, Moselle gushes with a levity at odds with the film’s 90 minutes: "When my editor saw that, she was like, ‘That’s some fuckin’ realism!’" It may otherwise smudge the line between cinema and reality, but The Wolfpack’s human element is triumphantly real.

The Wolfpack trailer

The Wolfpack is released in cinemas 21 Aug by Kaleidoscope Entertainment