When Everything Changes
The Angulo brothers are locked away from the outside world on Manhattan’s lower east side. What they learn about the real world is from what they see in the films they watch. They are nicknamed “The Wolfpack” and they spend their childhood reenacting their favorite films by using elaborate homemade props and costumes. Then their world is shaken up when one of the brothers escapes and everything changes.
I doubt any of us have seen a story quite like this before and it is a documentary. Seven children, all with waist-length hair, are raised on welfare in a messy four-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And they are almost never allowed to leave the house. They have not seen the outside world for years. The only key to where they live in in their father’s possession and he keeps the place locked. There have been time that they have been allowed outside but there are other times that they have been not. Today, all but one of the children still live there.
This is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction documentaries. In 2010, Crystal Moselle, the film’s director, met six of the Angulo siblings— boys who were then aged about 11 to 18, on one of their rare trips outside and befriended them. Over time, they allowed her to bring a camera inside the apartment. Moselle tells us, “I was their first friend, and I think they were as fascinated by me as I was by them,” “Slowly their mom warmed up. The dad was definitely a roller coaster.”
They, Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krisna and Jagadesh — and their sister, Visnu were homeschooled by their mother and when they were not learning, they were allowed to watch movies nonstop, on DVDs bought at a discount or borrowed from the library. What they saw of the world came from Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese and while these provided something of a different look at the world, the films did give them some creativity which they incorporated “into their lonely, claustrophobic lives.”
We get a look at what happens to the human spirit when it is locked away and interaction does not occur. The kids do not realize that life is different from the movies and not all girls break boys’ hearts. The brother, Mukunda who is now 20 and who got away has said that he had seen the film and that it accurately represented his family but declined to comment further. Susanne Angulo, the children’s mother stated that “I probably should not comment further,” she added before ending the call. Attempts to reach the children’s father, Oscar Angulo, were unsuccessful; a number listed in Manhattan had been disconnected. What we see in the film is“the intertwined, complicated and nuanced relationship between filmmaker and subject. The raw intimacy she [Moselle] is able to capture is a testament of the trust and bond she was able to establish.” We see the Angulo siblings in “The Wolfpack” as articulate, sensitive and extremely likable. At times, whether lost in role play in the apartment or heaped in a pile on a mattress to watch television, they can also seem a bit feral. A few speak, at times, with a cadence that is slightly off kilter. They clearly love their mother, Susanne, who is presented as being controlled to the same degree that they are.”
“There were more rules for me than there were for them,” Mrs. Angulo says quietly on camera. The father is more complicated. Ms. Moselle, 34, does not reveal him until about an hour into her 84-minute film and, even then, he speaks very briefly and doesn’t make much sense. He is a Peruvian immigrant and Hare Krishna devotee and we see him as as a paranoid man who has struggles with alcohol. He believes his children will be “contaminated” if they are let into New York City.
Director Moselle states, “We wanted to tell the truth without making too many judgments. Believe me, I could have really gone off on the guy.” She also says that “The thing is, these brothers are some of the most gentle, insightful, curious people I’ve ever met. Something was clearly done right.”
“The Angulo children, all of whom still live at home except for Govinda, 22, according to Ms. Moselle, are shown struggling with resentment toward their father. Narayana at one point says, “There are some things you just don’t forgive.” Later, he worries about “being so ignorant of the world that I won’t be able to handle it.”
Of course, we can only wonder if the children suffer psychological problems as a result of their unorthodox upbringing. “The Wolfpack” suggests the answer is yes but does not go into what they might be. The film does note that government agencies have become involved in recent years — following a visit to the apartment from the police — and that the children, at least for a time, were treated by psychiatrists.
Moselle first met the brothers in 2010 as they walked “in a pack” down First Avenue. “All of them were wearing black Ray-Ban sunglasses inspired by “Reservoir Dogs,” and their long hair was blowing in the wind. “I just started running after them to find out more and was instantly obsessed,” she said.”
“To divulge how the Angulos happened to be out of the house that day would move into spoiler territory. The Sundance programming guide does disclose that “everything changes when one of the brothers escapes and the power dynamics in the house are transformed.”