In the summer of 1989, a Peruvian man named Oscar Angulo worked as a tour guide for curious tourists on the trail to Machu Picchu. It was there that he met Susanne Reisenbichler, a hippie from the Midwest looking to run from her previous life. They fell in love and traveled the world for a while, eventually ending up back in the United States where they hit the road once again. In the time they spent jetting from place to place, Oscar and Susanne had seven children, a daughter and six sons given Sanskrit names—Visnu, Bhagavan, twins Narayana and Govinda, Mukunda, Krsna, and Jagadesh. The Wolfpack, a gripping documentary released in 2015, tells the story of their strange childhood.
After a lack of money forced Oscar to forgo moving his wife and children to Scandinavia, they instead settled into a cramped four-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It’s there that Oscar, warped by paranoia and a disquieting Holy Man complex, practically imprisoned his entire family for the next fourteen years. The decaying building, run by the New York City Housing Authority, along with the violence and crime rampant in the city streets, shocked and dismayed the newly immigrated father of seven, who hoped to protect his brood from the “contamination” of Western society. He pocketed the only key to the front door and guarded it diligently even when sleeping or stumbling drunk. Susanne was allowed to leave on occasion, mostly to bring the children to the doctor. Sometimes the family would go outside as a group, maybe two or three small trips annually. One specific year, he didn’t let them out at all.
Visnu, the eldest and only female sibling, was born with Turner syndrome which limits many things, including her ability to speak. “She lives in her own world,” her brothers affectionately tell the camera, seeming almost envious as it captures her carefree smile. The boys are not as wide-eyed as their sister. Their faces are masked by the inescapable pain of their childhood. They were rescued by cinema, which became an essential coping mechanism. Over a little more than a decade, they combed through nearly five-thousand films on VHS and DVD. Although their father wished to keep the world hidden, he unknowingly welcomed it in, often lugging in piles of rentals and secondhand titles to bolster their budding collection.
The Wolfpack thrives in its patient, claustrophobic portrayal of the Angulo family home, but it mainly concerns the six brothers and their courageous rebellion. Director Crystal Moselle and editor Enat Sidi carefully weave years-old camcorder footage of the boys with shots of their present life. We see them turn the narrow apartment into a playground, roller blading and kicking scooters down the hallway. Jump forward in time and we see their home become a movie set, a magical space where sweded productions of their favorite films come to life. These homemade movies ring with verbatim dialogue, transcribed from the screen first with a pen and paper, then officially refined via electric typewriter. Scenes from films like Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight explode with magnetic passion, chock-full of impressive prop and costume creations crafted with tape, cardboard, and other randomness found inside their den above New York City.
Though movies provided a semblance of therapy for the brothers, the damage done by their captivity is quite distinct. The four eldest sons, who essentially tell the bulk of the story, stumble at times when speaking of their shared trauma. We learn they were often quite lonely despite coming of age surrounded by family members. Perhaps it was this same desolation that drove Mukunda, fifteen-years-old at the time, to steal the apartment key and don a kitchen-crafted Michael Myers mask on an adventure into the unforgiving city streets. This led to police intervention and also landed young Mukunda in a mental hospital, but ultimately paved a path for he and his brothers to emerge from the high-rise dungeon they could barely call home.
They slowly began to leave the apartment on their collective accord. Though their father disapproved, he did nothing to stop his determined sons from busting out. Wrapped in black jackets with their long hair tied back and dark Ray-Bans shielding their eyes, the boys explored the New York environment looking like slick Tarantino offspring. It was on the city sidewalks that Moselle noticed them. She was fascinated by their unusual appearance and captivated by how closely they stuck together. After realizing a mutual love of cinema, it wasn’t long before she built a trusted relationship with the young men who would soon be known as The Wolfpack.
As Moselle’s camera affectionately drifts and lingers among them, we feel her love for the boys and their mother growing with each new frame. Soon her heated feelings glare on screen, as the line between filmmaker and subject is blurred completely. There’s no outside testimony regarding the Angulo family, not one word from any neighbors or possible acquaintances, nor do we hear much from Oscar, who seems to be painted as a shadowy villain of sorts rather than the disturbed human being he truly is.
The film does well to expose many shocking truths, but Moselle’s approach sometimes alters the way we perceive them. Mental illness is an indisputable burden on the Angulos and although the film does employ a certain level of commentary, there’s no real analysis of Oscar’s mental state or the ways in which it corrupted him. His willingness to participate comes into question and his warped mental state arguably defers his ability to consent. The same could be said of his children, who were mostly minors at the time of filming. Make no mistake, the importance of their story is undeniable. It’s a cautionary tale that should be told across the world, to all shades of dreamers who might feel bound in life. Nevertheless, allowing the camera to choose sides is a great way to sabotage an insightful documentary. Luckily, The Wolfpack escapes these brief missteps somewhat unscathed.
There’s a tremendous amount of compassion at the core of this hauntingly effective documentary. The lives of these fascinating people are brimming with love, confusion, excitement, suffering, and vivid imagination that somehow fits within their tiny apartment after swelling inside for more than a decade. Some might say the film isn’t full of sorrow, which fails to acknowledge the obvious. We meet the Angulo brothers at a brighter time in their lives, but behind their progress we see how fear is a central vice that continues to constrict their family. We also see how they refused to allow a horrible situation to drive them toward insanity. Instead, they surrendered to the addictive joy of being transported to other worlds—they became cinephiles.
The film ends with an original short called Window Feel, written and directed by Mukunda Angulo, who seems to be the brother most riveted by cinema’s warm embrace. As the main character, a regular man in a chair, he stares out a peculiar window much like the fractured panes of the family apartment. He silently watches as different emotions pass by—anger, happiness, insanity, shock, grief, awareness, death, and love—all colorfully embodied by his parents and siblings. As we fade to black, it becomes apparent that past miseries may never truly die, not just for the Angulos, but for all people. Confronting this reality can be painful, but The Wolfpack reminds us that movies will always be there to break our fall.