Sunday, June 14, 2015

The family that stays together: Hanging out with The Wolfpack

Filmmaker Crystal Moselle's new documentary The Wolfpack opened this week.

The story of the Angulo family is undeniably strange. A couple and their seven children reside in a New York City apartment. The father, a devout Hare Krishna convinced the world is a dangerous place, keeps his family mostly locked inside but for doctors’ appointments and the rare recreational venture. He has the only key. The children are homeschooled, and contact with outsiders is virtually non-existent.

To connect with life beyond the apartment walls, the brothers – there is also a younger sister with a developmental disability – develop a ravenous appetite for films and take to recreating their favorites. As they mature, they rebel against their father’s rule and slowly break down his authoritarian regime. First, one brother breaks out, then the rest. As the cracks widen in the dictatorial façade behind which they had lived, the twin fears of their father and the outside world dissipate until they are mostly free, experiencing real life almost for the first time.

“Fear’s not a factor anymore – in our story,” said Govinda Angulo, the second oldest, with his twin brother Narayana, of the siblings. “I think we had a little bit of fear because we didn’t really know what to expect when we broke out. I think we’ve done really well under the circumstances. I don’t think there’s any fear there.”

Govinda and Narayana were joined onstage Thursday at the Lincoln Center in New York City by brothers Bhagavan, Makunda, and Jagadisa, as well as by their mother Susanne and director Crystal Moselle. They were in attendance for a question-and-answer session following a screening of The Wolfpack, Moselle’s new documentary about the family. The film was a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival this year and began rolling out into theaters this week.

Moselle seems to have been given unrestricted access to the Angulos to document their story, no doubt due to the fact she met the brothers after they had already begun to dismantle their father’s makeshift prison. One of the brothers even states during an interview in the film that had they met a year before they did, no one would have spoken to Moselle. However fortuitous, the director’s good timing was aided by an eye for an interesting story.

“They were walking through the crowd, and something about them intrigued me,” she said. “They had this long hair and sunglasses, and they’re all in black, and I just ran after them. … It was very organic. When I met them, they were excited that I was a filmmaker, and they wanted to get into the business of filmmaking. We started hanging out at the park and looking at cameras together. … I filmed them at the park, and they asked me to come over to their house. I just always had a camera in hand. … It was all about creativity.”

As the Q-and-A went on, the collaborative nature of the project and the relationship between Moselle and the family came into sharper focus. On some level, they are almost partners as Moselle helped the brothers produce their first short film, saying she acted as a “sound board for them to take their art to the next level.” Susanne is even more direct when discussing Moselle’s place in the family.

“Crystal was just like a friend who would come and just be there with us and hang out and have fun with everyone,” she said. “When I met Crystal, it felt very natural to just let her in and open up our home to her and our hearts to her because she’s quite an incredible woman. I have to hand it to her. It didn’t really feel like we were being filmed and like: ‘Okay, now we have to present ourselves in some kind of way to be on camera.’ It was very, very natural.”

On one level, this is what the best documentarians do – make their subjects feel comfortable to such an extent that they behave as though the cameras are not even there, though they are always rolling. However, Moselle uses this privilege mostly just to pal around with her subjects as they perform their film re-enactments. There is little deeper investigation into the nature of the family or its unusual circumstances.

This is Moselle’s first film as a director, and she has found one helluva story to tell, but throughout The Wolfpack, it seems she is concerned with the less interesting parts of that story. Rather than explore the full implications of the family’s imprisonment, Moselle gives us brief hints as to what the family may have felt and experienced, but because so much emphasis is placed on the brothers’ filmmaking, it is impossible to become fully immersed in the other parts of their story.

The filmmaker and her subjects screen the film at the Lincoln Center.
Certainly, the tale of a group of brothers who grew up watching films and re-enacting their favorites attempting to become filmmakers is intriguing and worthy of a film in its own right. However, the Angulo family story runs deeper than that, and it is hard not to be frustrated by the film’s constant refusal to dig. What is more, it is hard to understand from where such reluctance would derive. Moselle’s rapport with her subjects would seem to suggest she could have probed further had she so desired. She simply does not.

“Crystal filming us felt more like a hangout more than work,” said Makunda. “It was like playtime because it was the whole circle of the filmmaking world. Re-enactments [were] part of our world, and we recognized filmmakers filming their subjects. I think we saw it as a complete circle of filmmaking. It was all like a hangout, really.”

The motif of the experience being a “hangout” recurred throughout the Q-and-A.

Govinda went on to say: “We’re sort of a film team, ourselves with Crystal and the team that made this movie.”

That the brothers became collaborators in telling the story of their lives is an empowering narrative in some sense, but it does not necessarily make for the best film. Perhaps, then, Moselle should have had more collaboration with Susanne, whose comments closed out the evening and who seemed to get closer to exploring the core of the Angulos than any of the filmmakers on stage.

“Family-wise, I see us growing and changing and evolving as a group of people who really love each other and care about each other and stick together and help to support each other,” she said. “I’ve always felt that in their support for me and my support for them. I also feel like it’s a real time of empowerment for me personally and also for them. It’s really a wonderful thing that’s happening.”

In a scene near the end of the film, we watch as Susanne calls her mother on the phone. The two women have not spoken in decades. Susanne’s unabashed joy and astonishment at the interaction make for some of the most beautiful moments in The Wolfpack. This is the life they missed out on due to their circumstances, and the scene is representative of the film the audience missed out on. If Susanne’s unfiltered, unself-conscious emotion is any indication, it would have been something.

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