From Machu Pichu to Hollywood via New York

in 58th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Ahmet Gürata

The Wolfpack, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, has gained a cult status among the viewers all around the world since then. The film’s subjects – the Angula brothers (aka the Wolfpack’s) – visit to Hollywood and the Criterion offices for their DVD picks, and their short film Mirror Heart, has been watched by thousands of online viewers. This extra-filmic interest driven by cinephilia has obviously contributed to the film’s already sensational reception even though it is yet to be released in most parts of the world.

The Wolfpack’s story begins with director Crystal Moselle’s chance meeting with the Angula brothers on the street in the Lower East Side. She befriends them and starts visiting their apartment where they have been secluded from the outside world by their over-protective and controlling father for a long time. The siblings’ parents met at Machu Pichu and after traveling the world settled in New York City in the mid-90s. The eldest daughter Visnu (who has a developmental disorder and is rarely seen in the film), and the brothers: Mukunda, Narayana, Govinda, Bhagavan, Krisna (Glenn), and Jagadesh (Eddie); were not allowed to spend time outside the house and home-schooled. It was only after Mukunda’s escape in 2010 that they gradually got limited permission for going out. During this time they watched hundreds of movies and restaged them with meticulous props and make-up. This was their way of learning life and overcoming estrangement and adversity.

Of course, the movies would not be enough to save these kids, if it wasn’t the care and affection of their mother Susanne. This has been mentioned by the brothers a few times. However, the film deliberately chooses not to focus on parental mistreatment or protection. This saves the film from representing its subjects as victims of the dominant parents (especially their father Oscar’s) excessive authority. Although possible abuse and psychological damage was hinted in certain scenes such as Oscar kissing his children on the lips, there are some gaps and missing characters in this story. Instead, The Wolfpack shows us the Angula brothers playful recreation of their favorite movies like Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight, and exposes a rather different coming-of-age story. While restriction of some crucial information can be frustrating, the unconventional approach to a traumatic situation makes the narrative more appealing. Perhaps it is this very ambiguity that reinforces the success of the film.

The Wolfpack mostly takes place in the Angula’s apartment in a public housing complex. Apart from interviews with the brothers and Susanne, there are scenes from their home videos and occasional outside excursions. But overall this is more than a portrait of an extraordinary family. It is an overwhelming ode to cinephilia in the age of “farewell to cinema”. Apart from the films restaged in this documentary, one can detect links with movies such as Grey Gardens (Maysles Brothers, 1975), Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979), The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf, 1998), Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003) and Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008).

“There are no dysfunctional families,” claimed a commentator on the radio whose name I can’t recall. “Every family functions one way or another,” he asserted. Seeing the Angula brothers growing into such articulate, kind and intelligent young men despite unfair treatment and sheltering, one cannot agree more on this comment. Of course, in this case, the function of the family was also complemented by the educating and therapeutic powers of cinema. But as the film suggests, at the end of the day we need to go outside of the confined and mediated world, in order to establish other forms of bonding and love.

Edited by Steven Yates