Context is everything in documentary films. That may be why so many of them include “expert” interviews even when they disrupt otherwise effective storytelling. An onscreen relationship between a filmmaker and a film’s subjects may provide context, but it also raises sticky questions about the altering effects of the filmmaker’s presence on the “truth” of a real-world setting. A fly-on-the-wall approach works well for some documentaries. But can an audience trust the results when it doesn’t know who let that fly into the house?
First-time feature director Crystal Moselle won the U.S Documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with The Wolfpack. It tells the incredible-but-true story of seven siblings (age 11 to 18 when filming began) who spent their entire early lives inside their family’s cramped apartment in a housing project on New York City’s Lower East Side. The kids only had been allowed to leave the apartment a few times a year — not at all some years — in excursions closely overseen by their parents.
The Wolfpack drops viewers into the kids’ strangely cloistered world without explanation. It provides an immersive experience and illuminates the emotional lives of family members living under extraordinary duress, even if the lack of context and resulting questions sometimes leave us wanting more.
As Moselle has described in many interviews since The Wolfpack became the talk of Sundance, she met the six Angulo brothers by chance on the street in Manhattan while they were on one of their first unsupervised walks through the city. The brothers were hard to miss because they were dressed as the cast of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Film had served as their only connection to the outside world, and they spent most of their time shooting well-crafted recreations of their favorite movies. They were thrilled to meet an actual filmmaker, and a slow-building friendship evolved into a four-year documentary shoot conducted mostly inside the Angulos’ apartment.
What Moselle found there was a paranoid father, Oscar Angulo, a Hare Krishna follower of Peruvian descent who was terrified of New York City but refused work as an act of rebellion, assuring the family could never move on as originally planned. His wife, Susanne Angulo, acquired a license to homeschool their kids but was powerless to change Oscar’s house rules. The kids give her credit for keeping them sane as they grew up without benefit of the community and culture that thrived just outside their window.
The Angulo kids’ lives were already starting to change when Moselle first encountered them. The film’s first half is devoted to portraying their early and recent experiences through increasingly unguarded talk from the kids, home movies from their early childhood and the brood’s revealing reenactments, which ironically rely on gangster and horror films that depict all the dangers the Angulos imagine of the world outside.
There is some light at the end of the family’s tunnel, which is where Moselle ultimately finds her purpose for the film. Though their story is strange and disorienting, it’s not hard to see the sources of more familiar forms of family dysfunction in the Angulos’ lives. That may be all the context The Wolfpack really needs.
The Wolfpack screens as part of the New Orleans Film Society's filmOrama festival at the Prytania Theatre on May 30, June 2 and June 4. More info and advance tickets are available here.