By sheer coincidence yesterday I watched Dogtooth for the first time; Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ bizarre and striking fictional story of siblings living in enforced seclusion from the world by their overly protective and misguided parents. One wonders what the Angulo family would make of the film. For here, in Crystal Moselle’s equally unusual documentary we encounter six brothers raised in almost total confinement in a cramped, rundown apartment high up in New York’s Lower East Side. Home schooled and rarely allowed to stray from the family home, the Angulo children have been raised almost exclusively on a diet of movies – over 5,000 by one account. Moselle’s film, then, almost feels like the end result of a bizarre social experiment. It’s findings both fascinating and elusive.
The grotty living space inhabited by Bhagavan, Govinda, Jagadisa, Krsna, Mukunda and Narayana (along with their parents and sister Visnu) gives the initial impression that this is going to be a rather gloomy, depressing tale of warped minds living in squalor, but the truth is somewhat different to that. Shut away from the world, these kids spend their time fixating on their one outlet; all those ultra-stylised movies. Quentin Tarantino films seem particularly popular, and the siblings spend days writing out the scripts and learning them front to back, meticulously copying it all down from VHS tapes before staging reenactments with handmade props, scenery and costumes. It almost feels as though they’re trying to work some kind of spell, igniting reality out of the fiction and in doing so discovering a way to break free.
Yet the brothers are not the backward social curiosities you might expect. They’re bright and articulate, one and all, emotionally intelligent and amiable with it. If there’s one distinct trait that such repeated exposure to the movies has afforded them, it is a slightly arch approach to language. The cooler-than-thou idioms of Tarantino have instilled in the brothers a method of articulation that is both elaborate and persistently coarse. Its only when you hear Tarantino’s conversational style transposed to every day use that you appreciate how artificial-sounding it really is.
Nevertheless, these kids seem remarkably self-aware. They lament their situation as much as they seem to enjoy it; this is their lives, after all. And the comparative security of it is understandable.
But what of the parents? Father Oscar, mastermind of this walled-in existence, seems reticent to participate in Moselle’s film, and indeed for the first quarter of an hour or so it seemed unclear whether he was even present in the family unit at all. We are advised that he doesn’t work out of idealism, and so the family’s only perceivable source of income are the government grants afforded the mother Susanne for home schooling the children. With this in mind there’s little incentive for them to change their ways.
Susanne seems deeply conflicted by the life she has made for herself and her brood. She speaks longingly of her childhood out in the Mid West and wishes her children had the opportunity to commune more with nature. Interestingly her descriptions of the activities she dreams of for them all sound like fabrications from the movies themselves, suggesting she too has been bewitched by unending hours of Hollywood videotapes. The brief exchanges we do get with Oscar paint him as uncomfortable and unhappy with their present living arrangements, which begs the question, if both parents are so fearful of New York, why live there at all? Why set up this sustained prison-like existence?
In this the film seems to be asking broader questions about the elements in human nature which find comfort in boxes. That there is safety in seclusion and confinement. The boys’ cut n paste film reconstructions are like trial runs for confronting the world beyond those grimy tenement walls. Behind the camera Moselle seems to focus most predominantly on providing a mood-driven snapshot rather than a psychological or moralistic analysis. The film is peppered with montages set to some admittedly dreamy and reflective guitar-based scoring. Yet what’s missing is context of how the Angulo family were discovered at all. Moselle’s film occasionally feels like opportunistic gawking happened upon inexplicably, reinforced by the brothers’ less than flattering nickname which gives the film it’s title.
By the end of The Wolfpack there’s a ray of hope. The family seems to be making tentative steps toward normalcy and Mukunda is even working on a short film of his own, employing a hand-crafted creativity that’s reminiscent of some of Michel Gondry’s music video work. Who knows? Maybe a few years down the line we’ll be booking box office tickets to see his own directorial features? Indeed, the somewhat abrupt end of Moselle’s film teasingly suggested this story isn’t finished yet, and that if we pay close enough attention then the Angulos won’t slip totally from our sight as quickly as they’ve appeared. For now, this is one of the more fascinating films in an otherwise fairly moribund summer season.