Mar 23, 2017
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Leader of the Wolfpack Revealed
by Doniphan Blair
Crystal Moselle, director and partial cinematographer of the new doc, 'Wolfpack', at work on the streets of Manhattan. photo: courtesy C. Moselle
STARTING ABOUT A YEAR AND A HALF
ago, reports started rolling out of New York about an exciting new documentary covering the six, skinny and longhaired brothers who suddenly appeared on the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, after being sequestered in a high-rise apartment for almost all of their childhood.
They were called the “Wolfpack,” which became the film’s name, see
. Culled from 500 hours of footage, it was four-and-a-half years in the making, with its last interview conducted in November 2014.
Debuting at Sundance shortly thereafter, it triggered an avalanche of acclaim, which is still rolling as the Angulo brothers—Bhagavan, now 23, the twins Govinda and Narayana, 22, Mukunda, 20, Krisna, 18, and Jagadesh, 17—fly this week to a festival in Colombia before heading to London.
There is a long tradition of dystopian coming-of-age stories, exemplified by “Lord of the Flies” (book, 1954, first film, 1963, second, 1990), but arguably none better and more tenderly executed than “Wolfpack”, now in theaters, by Crystal Moselle, barely out of being a kid herself.
Imagine my surprise, when I arrived at the assigned interview location and found Ms. Moselle to be a soft-spoken and young-looking 34 year-old, hardly a “gang wrangler,” which you might need to manage a film about six young men.
Moreover, this is her first documentary; she is from Marin County; AND she is the daughter of my old friend Charles Moselle. Perhaps he had some insight into how she pulled it off.
Ms. Moselle and her stars, the Angulo brothers, in their now trademark suits-and-ties reference to 'Reservoir Dogs', one of their favorite films. photo: courtesy C. Moselle
“She was very inspired by the first movie she went to, “Breaking’ [1984, about a jazz dancer turned break dancer],” I was told by Charles, an amazing saxophonist and composer, whom I met during San Francisco’s little-known Free Jazz Renaissance (1974-79).
“But this whole movie thing, I would say, really started with bedtime stories, which would evolve into weeks-long narratives.”
“In high school [Mt Tam High], she was gifted at painting,” Charles continued, “but it was too anti-social for her.” After she went to New York, to attend the School of Visual Arts, she switched to film, starting with animation.
She worked on a lot of projects, including doing some effects for the feature “Frida” (2002) and some producing and shooting on “
Excavating Taylor Mead
” (2005, William A. Kirkley), a documentary about a friend of Andy Warhol whom her friends met in a bar.
On "Wolfpack", she had some stellar help, starting with her excellent editor, Enat Sidi, known for “
” (2006) among other films, and her producers, including the Brodie brothers, Cameron and Tyler, and Alex Orlovsky, who worked on some big features, notably “The Place Beyond the Pines” (2012), although that hardly explains it.
“Crystal is the main hero of the film,” claimed the proud father, but with good reason.
“She took these boys, who were skulking around the city not talking to anyone, and opened the world to them,” Charles elaborated. “She told me the day she met them. She said she didn’t know exactly how but that this was probably going to be an epic moment.”
Suddenly “Wolfpack”, already an amazing film concerning some of my favorite topics—tribalism, cults, reinvention of culture, meta-film (the brothers are also filmmakers and “Wolfpack” addresses a lot of filmmaking concerns), lept up yet another level.
Charles Moselle, the filmmaker's father and a noted Bay Area musician, has some amazing insight into his daughter's film. photo: courtesy Charles Moselle
It now involved a fairy godmother, like a modernist remake of Tinker Bell and the Lost Boys.
“Crystal is kind of like—how to put it—like a camera,” Charles continued. “You are in the presence of someone who is receptive, who can listen with an open heart, non-judgmental. That is how she is so successful—all eyes and ears.”
“Part of her critical success,” Charles concluded, "concerns how she didn’t turn it into a horror movie, with the dad as the villain."
Our interview, arranged by the San Francisco International Film Festival, explored these issues even further.
So your connection to the brothers: You said it actually started with filmmaking and then moved to the sequester story.
Yes. Our first interaction was this common thread: the love of cinema. I learned just as much from them as they from me, they were like little encyclopedias.
You weren’t a Tarantino fanatic, like them?
I love Tarantino, for sure, but they definitely knew a lot more. They ended up showing me YouTube things. I was like ‘What? I’ve never seen that before!’
It was inspiring to see youngsters who were so self-sufficient, so passionate about this one thing and how they are going to make it happen. [laughs]
They didn’t even realize how special their re-enactments [of entire films] were. They were just, like, ‘We do the movie, that’s what we do.’
They had no one to compare themselves to. They were like a BF Skinner experiment: How to grow a filmmaker.
God, sort of. There was no [human] references to what they were doing, only films.
Ms. Moselle started her interview by reminiscing about the romanticism of New York where she said she wanted to work as a cabby or bike messenger. photo: D. Blair
It is good to note they reconciled with their father. Was he on the edge of going to prison?
When the authorities came in, they saw something was not right. Then they brought in Family Union, which works with the family, helps change the family, so they can stay together.
They saw that Suzanne [the mother] was a teacher and was teaching her kids legally. And they were taking their exams—and doing great. But they saw they weren’t going out and Mukunda was having a little break down.
Mukunda was the oldest?
Mukunda is actually the fourth down. He was 15 when he went outside the house.
Do they blame their father now?
There is resentment towards their father, for sure. I think he had all these big ideas and dreams about moving to Europe—he respected the education and point of view there.
I guess he figured they would be in Europe soon. Then they would be more free and have fun. It became this pattern, one day it will happen, but that day never came.
You talked in depth to the father?
Yes, I have. We are cool with each other.
Did you ever worry about the too-close-to-the-subject problem, going native as it were?
I approached this film in a very different way [from a regular documentary]: We started out as friends. I think that is the only way this film would have worked.
It is what is. I think it came out well [laughs].
How did you manage so much material?
Once she opens up, Ms. Moselle can make some serious pronouncements. photo: D. Blair
Enat [Sidi, the editor] has this great way of building these ‘tones,’ as she calls them, like putting together a shot of looking out the window with one of the hallway, building atmosphere.
That helped us create these scenes. Then we put them all on three by five cards, swapped them around and looked at various scenes and sequences—asking 'Does this work?'
There is this whole new documentary style coming forward. Have you seen ‘
’ [2011, Alma Har'el, about a poor California community]. It’s a really beautiful film.
It’s a story about three different people—one’s an old man, then there was a kid and child who has A.D.D.—but then she did these choreographed dances.
Then there’s the one about the Indonesian—.
The Act of Killing
’ [2012, Joshua Oppenheimer] which also has [musical] performances—there you go! It’s happening!
But I wouldn’t say my film is a hybrid documentary simply because I was friends with them. I think there was an intimacy that would be hard to achieve if you are standing back from the story. You kind of had to be immersed in it.
While I was watching it, I though you were going to come out from behind the camera. Were you ever tempted?
We felt it wasn’t right because their story, their life, was more interesting than my story of meeting them, which is now going to be told anyway—but did you want that?
When I heard questions from behind the camera, I thought the filmmaker would come out.
We thought about it and even tried it at an early stage [but], in all honesty, it didn’t work. Then you would have to explore that relationship and it would take away from the true heart of the story.
How bout the inverse: them coming into the editing room, giving comments?
They just gave you their home movies carte blanche?
They would give me presents.
I would ask them, ‘Do you have any films from when you were young?’ They would be like, ‘Yes.’ And then, ‘We’ll decide.’
Then Mukunda came one day and gave me a stack of VHSs this high [gestures broadly], 30-40 hours! We went through all of it quite a few times. I did it personally, then I had someone help me the second time.
At a Q-and-A with the SF International Film Festival's Rachel Rosen, Ms. Moselle demonstrated how she remained herself despite rapid celebrity. photo: D. Blair
I gave them a camera. I taught them how to use the camera and the audio, and said, ‘If there is anything you feel like shooting, anything important, shoot it. I want to see what you can do.’
That is when Mukunda gave me a [flash] card of his mother calling her mother [after a 20-year gap—she was also, in a sense, sequestered]. He shot that, last year.
So it’s like a collaboration.
More or less. They got to learn a lot, which was important to me. When I met them they wanted to learn filmmaking, so I am glad they got something out of it.
They are not too adversely affected by this celebrity thing?
I think they are getting opportunities to make things, which is amazing. That is all they care about. I don’t think they really understand the amount of hype that is happening now.
In a sense, just going outside is such a rush of human input maybe the celebrity stuff is just gravy on top?
Yeah. They have been noticed in the city for a few years since they have been going out [starting with Mukunda in 2010]. People are always like, ‘Oh, the Wolfpack.’
They're still living in the Lower East Side?
Yeah. The same apartment, although Govinda moved out.
Now it is fairly normal?
As normal as can be—what is normal?
The father just folded his cards?
He did, he really did. He said, ‘I guess this is what is happening.’ He is very Zen, in that sense.
They seem to have some anger—
There is some resentment for sure. I don’t know if forgiveness is going to happen anytime soon.
So you have deep conversations with them?
In the film, I did speak with Narayana about forgiveness and he says ‘I don’t see forgiving him.’ And rightfully so. They are dealing with the way they do: talking amongst themselves about it.
The Wolfpack and their fairy godmother, not quite her bubbly self, perhaps due to one-too-many interviews and photo shoots. photo: courtesy C. Moselle
Are you going to pursue these themes in documentaries?
As far as what I am doing next... the boys have started a little production company, Wolfpack Pictures. Mukunda’s film [that he was shooting at the end of the movie] is going to be coming out soon. His films are very surrealist, very cool.
It reminded me of ‘Mishima’ by Paul Schrader , art-oriented, theatrical, symbolist.
Yes. I am writing a script right now, I have a couple of documentary ideas. But I’m waiting for something to move me—run by me on the street! [laughs]
I have always made short narratives. I had something I was working on that I had to put on hold for ‘Wolfpack’. Now I am back on that. All my stories come from real life experiences I had.
How about the ‘Wolfpack’ themes of the wild child—
Yes, isolation, mind control, cults, off the beaten path.
You must have loved ‘We Live in Public’ (2009, Ondi Timoner]—
I was in that! I worked with Josh Harris [who was both the subject and producer of the event where dozens of New York hipsters agreed to stay in a fully wired basement for a few weeks].
That was my first job in NY! I was down there in the bunker. I wasn’t there for New Years but I went on the boat—they went on this tuna fishing excursion. I was in that scene, dancing on top of the boat, I was 19 years old.
That was a bizarre film and it ties into yours: sequestering, tribes.
Yeah, Josh is an old friend of mine. Now he is in Las Vegas, planning his next thing. He sent me a congratulations for this film.
And other filmmakers?
If you have a good ‘log line’ [or pitch] out here [California] you will really go far.
‘Six brothers who grow up in New York completely isolated from society.’ They love sensational things like that.
But ‘Brother and sister growing up in North Dakota, finding their way’—the log line for ‘Songs My Brother Taught Me’, a beautiful film about a Native American family—that is not as exciting to people.
But, to me, that is the best film. When I see a log line like that, I think, it will probably be a beautiful slice-of-life film, which I love.
I just happened upon this great log line. But, at the end of the day, [‘Wolfpack’] is about a family. I didn’t take a journalistic view.
I wasn’t trying to depict all the psychological repercussions. I just wanted to capture this event that happened in the family’s life that changed everything for them: Mukunda’s escape.
That was the central piece. It took you a while to figure that out?
It did. There were so many things happening, you can get lost in the details, for sure.
The purity of it was that these boys found their own world through film and then they escaped into the real world, you could say.
What was the ‘Aha moment,’ discovering they had been sequestered.
Crystal Moselle has done an amazing job of remaining herself, despite media-darling-dom, according to her dad, although he'd love it if her handlers let her out occasionally to phone home. photo: D. Blair
I was in a pizza parlor with Mukunda, there was this drunk guy bothering us, and he said, ‘Stop bothering us!’ The guy left and I said ‘That’s good, you were strong just now.’
And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I have done other things before.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Well, I escaped from the house.’
That’s when everything turned: ‘You escaped!?! Why would you have to escape?’ That’s when I realized there was lot more to the story. I didn’t know anything about it.
I knew they were home schooled—my cousins are home schooled. When you are home schooled and you are not socializing day-to-day you are going to have your own vibe.
I didn’t realize they were on mind control lockdown.
At the end of the day, they could have walked out of the house—it wasn’t locked from the inside—but the fear installed in their heads [from infancy] made that impossible.
They had been outside before, it just wasn’t on a daily basis. They weren’t able to ‘excavate’ the outside on their own. Their father would take them and say, ‘We’re going here and we’re going here but don’t look at anybody, don’t talk to anybody.’ It was very bizarre.
One the thing I find in your story, and I think is very important, is the relationship between tribe and civilization. This is one of the big problems in the Middle East. But, in their case, they were in a tribe and they jumped into civilization in a healthy way.
I think they are finding their way in the world. At the end of the day, these are their first steps. We are not going to know the long psychological repercussions for ten years, maybe. These are their first steps, which I was very fortunate to capture.
Who knows, maybe there will be a part two.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Jul 23, 2015 - 11:50 AM