In 1895 Auguste and Louis Lumiere invented the first practical motion picture camera that could also project a recorded image onto a screen. Three days after Christmas they showed their first motion pictures to the public. They consisted of little more than everyday events – workers leaving a factory, a train pulling into a station, a baby eating breakfast, etc. It wasn’t much but the public was enthralled. When people saw the train approaching they would duck or run out of the building for fear that they might get hit by the locomotive.
Later the brothers toured the world exhibiting their cinematographe. While on tour they also made short films (called “actualities”) of the places they visited – Brussels, London, Montreal, New York, Bombay, Buenos Ares. Along with their native Paris they put together a cinematic travelog which they eventually distributed around the world. At a time when the automobile was still in its developmental stage and when the only way to travel overseas was via steamship – an incredibly expensive and time-consuming luxury – it was typical for people to go their whole lives without traveling any further then twenty miles from their home. These travelogs gave them a window onto the world at large.
Ever since, people have used the movies as a means of experiencing the world beyond their own confines. All over the planet people learn about American culture from our movies. Here at home many people are given their first exposure to other cultures via imported films (provided that their cinematic appetite goes beyond our domestic fare). Countless baby boomers hopped on a plane and traveled to Rome after seeing La Dolce Vita, to swinging London after seeing Blow Up or to Rio during Carnival after viewing Black Orpheus. More people probably took up martial arts after seeing Hong Kong action movies starring Bruce Lee or produced by the Shaw Brothers. Even a Hollywood film shot overseas can stir wanderlust in the observer. A country as remote as New Zealand has seen an explosion in tourism following the release of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
For the seven children of Oscar and Suzanne Angulo – the subject of the documentary The Wolfpack – the movies aren’t just a window onto the outside world. They are their only contact with any other human beings. That’s because they are part of a religious cult and have been completely isolated from any other human beings for almost their entire lives.
And where do they live? A remote jungle? A compound in the American heartland?
No. They live right in one of the most densely populated places in the western hemisphere, The Lower East Side of Manhattan. Their home is a four-bedroom apartment on the sixteenth floor of a public housing project. Outside of their window they can see the Empire State Building and the mass of humanity on the streets below. But they haven’t set foot outside of the apartment in over a decade.
We are told that Suzanne, the mother, came from the American midwest. She met Oscar while in South America (they aren’t clear as to which country but an interview I read with director Crystal Moselle revealed that he’s from Peru and that they met while visiting Manchu Picchu). They got married and started a religious cult. That’s actually a bit of an overstatement seeing as how the cult is so small it makes the Westboro Baptist Church look like the Church of Scientology. It consists solely of Oscar, Suzanne and their children. The goal was to have ten kids but Suzanne had to stop at seven. They have six boys and one girl, who we’re told is “special”. All of their names are in Sanskrit. Like the Sikhs they never cut their hair, but they don’t wear them in turbans.
It’s difficult to tell the boys apart. They look so much alike and are so close in age. Apparently director Moselle tried to clarify which son was which during the editing process but it only confused the audience. In a sense they have all lived together in close proximity for so long that they seem to be the individual parts of a single being.
The boys are all quite beautiful. They have long dark hair and very Native American features. They are all quite slim and look healthy, which is surprising given the fact that they’ve lived their lives as invalids. They’ve been home schooled by their mother, so they aren’t illiterate. They all seem very nice but they’re also emotionally stunted. They can’t seem to express anger, frustration or sadness, although as the film progresses we learn that there is a fair amount of all three below the surface.
We are told by one of the boys that Oscar and Suzanne brought their children to America in hopes of getting enough money so that they could eventually migrate to Scandinavia (again, they’re sketchy as to which country). But we are told that Oscar “doesn’t like the idea of working”. Somehow they ended up in New York on public assistance and found lodging in public housing. There they have stayed ever since.
One of the boys explains that they used to venture out of the apartment on occasion. At one time it was probably nine times a year. Then two. Then none.
Oscar has the only set of keys to the front door. He and he alone occasionally ventured out when provisions are low. He returns with food, supplies, and movies. Tons of movies. He apparently started buying movies on VHS and later DVD. The boys now have a huge collection.
Their favorites are among the usual suspects. They love Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather, Reservoir Dogs and the Dark Knight trilogy. They’ve watched these films over and over and over again. But they don’t just watch them. They reenact them over and over and over again. They construct props and costumes out of cardboard and act the movies out verbatim, sometimes even transcribing the dialog right from the screen. One of the boys does a dead-on impression of both Steve Buscemi and of Heath Ledger as The Joker.
The boys do have access to a video camera, which allows them to record their re-enactments. They never seem to create their own stories. How could they when all they’ve ever been exposed to is fantasy?
The boys are very protective of their Mom, Suzanne. She tells us that she had hoped that they would have the kind of upbringing she had. She goes on to describe a childhood that could be right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Instead they found themselves in the middle of a concrete jungle which she and Oscar apparently felt they had to protect their children from.
They do have home movies. It’s through these that we first meet Oscar. For roughly the first third of the film he’s only referred to. He seems to be hiding in his room. The Wizard of Oz of the apartment. Eventually we meet him, holed up in his bedroom. He doesn’t have much to say. He says that he needed to protect the boys from the temptation of drugs and crime on the street. He says he feels sorry for “what has happened.”
And what exactly has happened? According to one son Oscar completely controlled them at a young age. Not only were they not allowed to leave the apartment but on certain occasions they weren’t allowed to leave a certain room. The boys clearly resent the fact that they were manipulated and controlled by their father but they have no way to express their anger.
Eventually Mukunda, the eldest son, decided it was time to venture out. When his father was out on one of his supply runs, Mukunda left the apartment. He didn’t want to be recognized so he donned one of the homemade masks – Michael Meyers from Halloween. Of course, going out in public in a mask only drew attention to himself. He went into several stores and businesses. Eventually he made the mistake of entering a bank with the Michael Meyers disguise. Needless to say, the police were called. All of his life he was told never to speak to anyone, so he remained silent when he was questioned by the police. Thinking that he may be mentally ill, the police sent him to Bellevue for psychological testing.
And in a way it was the best thing that ever happened to Mukunda and the boys. They were discovered and could no longer live in hiding. When Mukunda describes his arrest he doesn’t describe it like it was a traumatic event, a few nervous laughs not withstanding. It certainly didn’t scare him back into his cocoon. Before long he was venturing out on a regular basis. His brothers soon followed.
It is that this juncture that the boys met Crystal Moselle, the director. She spotted the group on First Avenue wearing sharp black suits with skinny ties and sunglasses. In other words, their Reservoir Dogs costumes. She befriended the sextet. By this time they were already starting to get a bit of notoriety in the neighborhood. Though the name never actually comes up in the film itself, people started referring to the boys as “the wolfpack”. It was then that she learned of their bizarre situation. To her surprise the boys were quite open to the idea of being the subject of a documentary.
The Wolfpack took five years to make. It won the U.S. Documentary Jury Grand Prize at Sundance, has been released by Magnolia films and is currently streaming on Netflix. You could very well criticize me for posting this movie on this blog. If it was released this year that doesn’t give you much time to have (probably) heard of the movie, now does it?
The ultimate goal of this blog is to create awareness of movies that I feel were overlooked and, more to the point, encourage people to watch them. Also, The Wolfpack was not chosen among the fifteen finalists for this years Academy Award nominations, thus closing off one avenue for publicity.
The Wolfpack has been compared to David and Albert Maysles classic documentary Grey Gardens about a mother and daughter who were one-time socialites and were then living in total seclusion in a decaying Long Island mansion. It also reminded me of Crumb, the documentary about cartoonist R. Crumb and his two brothers, both of whom are agoraphobic invalids. But the documentary that it most struck a chord with for me was Capturing the Friedmans, a disturbing look at a Long Island family that is driven apart when two of the family members are accused of sexually abusing children.
The Wolfpack is certainly an unusual story about unusual human behavior. But it’s also a story about redemption and how quickly humans can adapt. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by describing the end of the film but you might want to stop reading if you want it to be a complete surprise.
We see the family, the entire family, getting in touch with the outside world. At one point the boys, after a lifetime of watching movies on their television, go to see The Fighter, their first trip ever to an actual cinema. Mukunda, the first to venture outside of the cave is also the first one to leave the pack. He gets a job as a P.A. on a film set, makes some friends of his own, who he bonds with over discussing episodes of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, and even finds a room for himself to rent. He still ventures home regularly. In one poignant scene Suzanne is given a cell phone and calls her mother, who she hasn’t spoken to in fifty years. Then we see the entire family, including Oscar, travel to an apple orchard in upstate New York. The boys are out exploring on their own. Mom and Dad are holding hands and waking amongst the apple trees. Have they made peace? Are they still in love?
It’s the very final moment that I particularly loved. Mukunda returns to the apartment to make a new movie. This one is not a reenactment. It’s a somewhat avant-garde movie featuring his Mom, siblings and an attractive young actress that he met on a film set. We see him put his arm around her shoulder which makes us think that he’s been able to make a romantic connection with another person. At the end Mukunda is able to let go and cry. Perhaps more to the point, he now has enough life experience to express himself creatively, rather than just mimic what he’s seen in other people’s movies.
As mentioned before, The Wolfpack is streaming on Netflix. Below is a link to an interview with director Crystall Moselle.