By Jamie Maleszka
The Wolfpack is a story of becoming. It is a stranger than fiction weave of family, dire isolation and the healing power of charting one’s own destiny. Suffused with an almost feral innocence both in form and subject, the Sundance award-winning documentary chronicles the coming of age of the six Angulo brothers.
All exceedingly bright and articulate, these brothers have spent the bulk of their lives locked away from the rest of society. It is their own father who imposes their isolation. Homeschooled, they are confined to the family’s four-room apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Out of fear of being “contaminated,” the boys were rarely permitted to venture outside. One year, they went out a handful of times. Another year, not at all.
Amazingly, it is through unfettered access to and obsessive love of movies that the brothers gleaned any understanding of the outside world. With zeal, they gobbled up classics and blockbusters alike. But, they also went to meticulous lengths to reenact — to inhabit — the films they loved, word for word with elaborate costumes and homemade props. The worlds of Scorsese, Nolan and Tarantino were elixir to boredom and loneliness.
The inevitable boldness of youth prompts one brother (clad in a Michael Myers mask for anonymity) to finally escape from the apartment. The power dynamic within the family is forever upended. It is this tectonic shift that first-time director Crystal Moselle successfully captures on film — the thrill of discovery and the aftermath of surviving Hell. Camera in hand, she was the first guest ever inside the Angulo home. The mutual respect and friendship between the filmmaker and the boys is evident in every frame. So is their longing to share their truth.
I recently shared a telephone call with Moselle. We chatted about the remarkable change in the brothers since they first met, what it was like interviewing the boys’ father and how forgoing the traditional filmmaker-subject relationship ultimately informed the doc.
Nonfics: When you first met the Angulo brothers, they were just past the tipping point. They were already venturing outside. Was your presence more as a witness then, say, as a catalyst?
Crystal Moselle: Yes. They were already out and about. They said it was like maybe the first week they started going outside all together as a group. I had met them on the street and we had a similar love for movies. I had no idea what their story was really that first year. I was interested more in them as characters and that they wanted to make movies. So I thought I’d follow them as they were making movies. That was the basis of it. As time went by and the layers peeled off, though, it became a whole other thing.
How soon after meeting them were you invited into the apartment for the first time?
I was invited in maybe five months into the process to see all their creative work. I knew obviously that they grew up differently, but I didn’t know the level of seclusion that they endured.
You could have opted for a myriad of narratives with this, but you decided to zero in on the thread of becoming. Why is that?
The kids were the ones that struck my inspiration. That’s what got me into the story. They were the ones reveling their story to me.
How were you able to maintain any sense of objective distance between you as filmmaker and the boys as subjects?
It’s very hard to do that, actually. I think I didn’t approach this film the traditional route. I was very close with my subjects, but that’s how the film works. I don’t think it would have worked any other way.
Was it difficult to not intervene? Did you want to get directly involved with ushering them into the outside world?
I was involved. In the beginning, I’d say, more as their friend. So you know, I would show them cameras and things like that. They’d be like, “Oh, we want to go to the beach.” And I’d say, “Cool. I’ll follow you to the beach.”
I absolutely had an objective sense when I was filming. It wasn’t always interaction. That was just like the very first six months. Once we made up the plan to make the film, I was able to really let their transformation unfold. And it did. And it happened. It was pretty cool to see them go out into the world and create their own decisions in life.
What was it like talking with the father, Oscar Angulo, on camera?
He was very open to be interviewed. I think he liked being on camera. I think he saw some sort of [searching for the right word] opportunity for them — from the film. Which I guess he’s right.
Can you talk about the complexities involved in balancing your loyalty and responsibility to the family and truthfully portraying them on film?
It’s not easy, but I always had the intention to tell the story in a nonjudgmental way. They released their story to me and trusted me in telling it. It was difficult to get to that day [where] we were like, hey, we’re going to show you this film we’ve been working on for the last four years. It was difficult, but they came at it with open arms. We all had a good cry afterwards. [One of the brothers] said he felt like he had gone through a hundred years of therapy and feels a lot better now from watching the film.
Is it possible to even articulate the change you’ve seen in the brothers since this began nearly five years ago?
It has been so surreal. You know, going from being secluded to out in the eye of the public. It’s surreal. I think that the change seems to be a positive transformation and change for them. They are embracing it. I mean, it’s not always easy but I think that there is a lot of great stuff coming from it.
Would you consider charting the family’s progress on film in the years ahead?
Yeah. We’ll see. I’m not ruling it out.
The Wolfpack opens in New York City on June 12th at the Landmark Sunshine Cinemas and Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, expanding nationwide on June 19th.