The Wolfpack: Six brothers who never went outside

Crystal Moselle’s documentary The Wolfpack tells the extraordinary story of a family raised in complete isolation in Manhattan

 

Mukunda Angulo is from Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Growing up, in common with many aspiring young film-makers, he and his five brothers would transcribe dialogue and make props from cereal boxes in order to recreate favourite scenes from favourite movies.

“Part of why we love movies is that they gave us pointers about what to expect from the world as well as how to have a conversation,” says Mukunda. “We learned about things like the Justice Department or ranking in politics. If you look at Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, for example, you don’t learn everything about trading, but it teaches you how Wall Street works. So we learned a lot from watching movies.”

Quite unlike most aspiring film-makers, however, the medium of film – and their father’s 2,000-plus video collection – offered Mukunda and his siblings their only contact with the outside world. For most of their lives, the boys – Narayana, Mukunda, Bhagavan, Govinda, Krisna (who now goes by Glenn) and Jagadesh (who now goes by Eddie) – were not permitted to leave the apartment they shared with their sister, Visnu, and their parents, Peruvian-born Oscar and midwesterner Susanne.

Only Oscar had access to the keys. Two of the rooms of their six-room 16th-storey flat – the rooms adjacent to other apartments – were sealed off. The siblings were home-schooled. Even their neighbours did not know they existed.

That changed in 2010 when Mukunda, the third-eldest brother, simply walked out the front door. Wearing a replica of the mask worn by Michael Myers in the Halloween movies (lest his father spot him), he wandered around shops until the authorities were called. Mukunda was picked up and sent for psychiatric evaluation, an experience that allowed him to talk to strangers for the first time. It was a small act of defiance that would change everything.

“I don’t know why it was me,” he says. “There was nothing really special about that day. I just woke up and wanted to get out of there. I think after being locked up for 15 years you get to a point emotionally where you just can’t handle the isolation any more. And you have to break out.”

 

Discombobulating

The subsequent familial revolution is chronicled in The Wolfpack, an extraordinary new documentary that has generated as many news stories as it has rave notices. More than any of this summer’s special effects extravaganzas, it’s a film that leaves the viewer wondering: however did they make this? Sure enough, the five-year story behind The Wolfpack is almost as intriguing as its discombobulating content.

Upon returning home from evaluation, 15-year-old Mukunda began to venture out with his other brothers. “We started going across the street without our parents,” recalls Mukunda, now aged 20. “We discovered Google. And we took a couple of yellow book maps and started scouting the city and figuring out what street was which.”

On one of their earliest excursions, the family was spotted by film-maker Crystal Moselle. She was so profoundly intrigued by their matching long hair and Reservoir Dogs-inspired styling that she chased after them down the street.

“It was just a gut instinct,” says Moselle. “They seemed or felt foreign. Almost like a tribe. Their presence was so strong and I was so curious to find out who they were.”

Moselle and the boys soon bonded over cinema and her knowledge of film-making equipment. She began shooting them and visiting the house without fully realising the circumstances of their upbringing.

“We started out as friends,” she recalls. “I had no idea about their background. I had no idea how they grew up. I was totally enamoured by how articulate they were. They were a timid family. I realised they were home-schooled. But I have Mormon cousins in Utah who were home-schooled, so that didn’t seem too unusual. We started hanging out. We started using cameras together. It was like this slow process. I knew I wanted to do a project with them. I just wasn’t sure what it was going to be.”

 

First friend

It was only during the last year of Moselle’s five-year shoot that she came to realise how the brothers had grown up. In that time she had filmed their first trip to the beach and their first visit to the cinema.

“There were hints,” she says. “But it was a slow process, and it wasn’t until the end that I realised I was their first friend. And that I was the first visitor to the house.”

How did the family patriarch initially responded to an interloper in his once-fortified home? “He wasn’t there for the first three or four times I went over. The parents would leave. When I did meet him he thanked me profusely for helping his kids. So that was the conversation I had.”

Did Moselle’s occasional presence embolden the brothers? “It was a process that was going to happen anyway,” says Mukunda. “She was able to teach us about cameras and New York. But we couldn’t stay there forever.”

The Wolfpack has greatly benefited all the various participants. In January, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The eldest brother, Bhagavan, is currently a yoga instructor and a corps dancer with New York’s Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory. Govinda is a camera assistant and freelance director of photography. Narayana works at New York Public Interest Research Group. Glenn (17), and Eddie (16), are aspiring musicians. Mukunda is an on-set production assistant and has already met many of his heroes, including William Friedkin, Werner Herzog, David O Russell and Spike Jonze.

The lads have formed their own production company and are currently in the UK on promotional duties for The Wolfpack. The director says it’s not unlike being on tour with a boy band.

“Everywhere we go people want to talk to them,” she says. “They’re such delightful people. We just got recognised on the streets of Glasgow.”

More impressively, the Angulo brothers are not remotely bitter about the years they spent in confinement.

“We were upset before the movie came out,” says Mukunda. “We went through a period. But we got to a point where we thought being upset is not going to do any good. If we spent 10 years being upset we’ll just miss out on 10 more years of our lives. So we moved on. We don’t want that. We want to grab what we missed out on.”

The Wolfpack is out now

 

 

SECLUSION ON FILM: MADE IN THE SHADE

  • Poto and Cabengo (1979) Poto and Cabengo are the names the emotionally neglected American identical twins Grace and Virginia Kennedy called each other. Jean-Pierre Gorin’s much-admired documentary explores the invented language they used until the age of eight.
  • The Wild Child (1970) Director François Truffaut’s depiction of Victor of Aveyron, a famous 18th-century feral child, was a box-office smash on its initial theatrical run.
  • The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974) In 1828, a foundling arrived in Nuremberg claiming to have spent the first 17 years of his life in a cell, visited only by a mysterious man in a top hat. We prefer the original German title: Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (Every Man for Himself and God Against All). But director Werner Herzog’s reconstruction of Hauser’s mysterious life and death is flawless.
  • The Jungle Book (1967) “Forget about those, they ain’t nothing but trouble.” Who needs humans when you have Phil Harris’s Baloo the bear for company? Huh?
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