June 15, 2015

'The Wolfpack' Visits a World Where Cinema Is Home

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

There are eight million stories in the Naked City, it’s been said of New York—but none more extraordinary than the one filmmaker Crystal Moselle stumbled upon in 2010.

Walking in the East Village one day, she encountered six young men—brothers, it turned out, with long black manes and bearing the names of Indian gods: Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krisna and Jagadesh. Moselle and the boys bonded over a mutual love of cinema and, as the friendship grew, Moselle gained admittance to their private world within the walls of a public housing project.

The strange alternate universe she discovered there—at once magical and disturbing— became the focus of The Wolfpack, Moselle’s debut documentary, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The film opens June 12 in New York and Toronto through Magnolia Pictures before expanding to Los Angeles, Chicago and dozens of other cities.

Moselle told Documentary that it wasn’t until months into her relationship with the brothers that she realized they had grown up in almost complete isolation. Their overbearing father, a Peruvian immigrant and one-time follower of Hare Krishna, prohibited them from leaving the apartment except on rare occasions—perhaps once a year. One year, he didn’t let them out at all. “I always described our childhood like him being the land owner and us the people who work on the land,” says one of the brothers in the film.

Constrained by this poverty of social contact, they learned about the outside world from films—Reservoir Dogs, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Dark Knight Rises, for example—which they recreated in imaginative detail, down to the costumes, sets and dialogue.

Documentary spoke with Moselle in New York about her serendipitous meeting with the Angulo brothers and her experience making The Wolfpack.

Crystal Moselle, director of 'The Wolfpack.' Photo: Megan Delaney. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Take me back to that first time you saw the guys. What happened?

I was walking down First Avenue with my friend and this kid ran by me. And he was weaving through the crowd and I was like, “Oh, who’s that kid?” Then another one ran by and had a similar vibe, then another one and all of a sudden six had run by. My instincts took over and I just ran after them.

I caught up to them and I was like, “Where are you guys from?” And they said, “We’re from Delancey Street.” And I just couldn’t fathom that. They said, “We’re not really supposed to talk to strangers,” but then Govinda broke in and said, “What is it that you do for a living?” And I said, “I’m a filmmaker,” and they got really excited. And they said, “Oh, we’re interested in getting into the business of filmmaking.” I was like, “Oh, cool. Maybe I can show you some cameras in the park or we can talk about movies together.” They were very excited and I was very excited. I gave them my number and thought, “If they call me they call me. Hopefully they do.” And they did!


So they had access to a phone?

Yeah, they had a phone at their house.


So that was one avenue to the outside world.

Mm hmm.


Because at that early stage you had no idea how cut off they were from society. How were you able to establish trust with them, especially because they were so reticent about strangers or anyone outside the family?

We had this common thread between us—our interest in film. We were able to use that as a way to communicate and get to know each other. So it was really just a friendship at first. I was filming them from very early on, showing them cameras and then eventually they invited me to come over to their house. I saw that there was something there, and I asked them, “Would you be interested in doing some sort of documentary project with me?” And they were like, “Why would you want to document us? What’s so special about us?”

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

How about the parents? Were you surprised they would agree to participate?

By the time I came into their household, the dynamics of power had shifted; the boys were really calling the shots. I think that they did ask their mom and she was into that idea, but they weren’t talking to their dad at that point. It felt very natural. It didn’t feel like there was any friction for [the film] to happen.


When did you realize the brothers were not only interested in film but were filmmakers in their own right? They’re creating these productions in very unusual circumstances.

When I first came to their house, they were building their Halloween festival. They had all these crazy contraptions and cool sets that were made out of cardboard and tape and construction paper and stuff. Eventually they started telling me about these re-enactments. I was able to see one of them and I was just like, “Whoa, this is the next level.” One of the first times we hung out, they did a re-enactment of The Deer Hunter. Or maybe it was Platoon. It was beautiful.


You incorporate the family’s home videos in the film. How important was the archival material in telling the story?

One day Mukunda said to me, “I have a present for you.” And he gave me 10 VHS tapes filled with six to 10 hours each of footage from their childhood.

When you’re telling the backstory of their childhood, it’s like a dream to be able to show what it was like and for people to actually see the environment in that household before the kids escaped.


From those old VHS images, one gets the sense that the father, Oscar, was like a cult leader. Is that fair to say?

I prefer to not pass judgment, but I’ve always said, It almost feels like he’s a failed cult leader. He definitely had something going on in his ideology. He had his interest in taking little things from different religions and mashing them into his own sort of thing. But it didn’t work, what he was trying to do.


I keep going back in my mind to Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now.

That is so funny you say that, because I see him like he’s [got] this little community, kind of like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. There was always a parallel that I felt between those two.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Did you ever feel that your presence in the household was upsetting the power balance, since they had so little contact with the outside world? Like you were a character in this psychodrama?

At first because we were friends, I just naturally became part of the story a little bit. Their interest in the outside world—[they] now had somebody they could ask questions to. I was the first friend they’ve ever had. But as they started going out more and creating their own lives, I was able to step back and just record their process and what they were doing.


The father had somewhat megalomaniacal plans for the family—he wanted to become successful in the music industry. Your film is in a sense making them famous. That’s not the point of it, but it’s a consequence in a way. Do you feel like you’ve unintentionally fulfilled some of his goals for the family?

Yeah. It’s really strange. Oscar and I discussed it before. He’s like, “Well look, we’re here now [in the spotlight]”— like where he always saw his children being. It’s pretty backwards, right?


How are the brothers doing now?

They’re starting their own production company, Wolfpack Pictures.


Was “The Wolfpack” the name they gave themselves?

Actually [it was] my friend, who I was walking down the street with that day. After we hung out she’s like, “Oh, they’re like a sweet little pack of wolves. They’re just a little wolfpack.” And I told them, “You guys are like a little wolfpack.” And it just became this nickname.


What do you want to do next?

I’m writing a script right now and I’m doing more short-form types of projects, and helping the boys of Wolfpack Pictures. There’s actually a documentary project—I’m not going to talk about it yet. I started to conceptualize it and I think I’m going to start doing some research for it. Honestly, it’s been really amazing how many doors are opening for me. You gotta take these chances while you can.


Matthew Carey is a documentary writer and producer whose work has appeared on CNN, CNN International and CNN en Español. He is the editor-in-chief of nonfictionfilm.com.