The bizarre tale of six brothers and their bid for freedom after being locked away in a Manhattan apartment for years
In the stuffy living room of a 16th-floor apartment on New York’s Lower East Side, a confounding assortment of movie characters are lined up, Usual Suspects-style, against a yellowing wall. Calvin Candie, the diabolical plantation owner from Django Unchained, stands next to Donnie Brasco. Mike, the gay street hustler played by River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, is shoulder to shoulder with Anton Chigurh, the cold-blooded psycho-killer from No Country for Old Men. Somewhat anomalously, The Animal from Motörhead is here too, as is a guy sporting a leather jacket, denim vest and impeccably layered mullet, referred to simply as “eighties guy”.
In the middle is a tiny, long-haired blonde woman named Crystal Moselle, whose award-winning debut feature has turned the lives of this real-life motley crew on their heads. “She’s kind of like our second wolf-mom!” proclaims Chigurh – real name Mukunda – with a wide, toothy grin. “Meeting Crystal was life-altering,” he says and gives her a long hug, one among countless that are exchanged over the course of the day.
Introducing, the Wolfpack. Mukunda and his five brothers make up the principal cast of Moselle’s namesake documentary, which garnered widespread acclaim after taking home the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Festival. You would hardly guess it from the spirited atmosphere at today’s shoot, but these young men – Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Glenn, Eddie and Mukunda – have spent the best part of their lives locked up in this tiny apartment. Their only window to the outside world was a mountainous collection of Hollywood films.
It was only five years ago, when they decided to defy their fiercely over-protective parents and step outside, that the boys ran into Moselle and were introduced to the non-fictitious realm of filmmaking. The fateful decision was the beginning of a weird and wonderful journey that saw the brothers go from obsessing over movie stars to mingling with them at festivals and screenings.
Today, however, the pack is back in full-on fanboy mode. After peeling themselves out of bed one by one (“We stayed up late last night watching Dazed and Confused,” Bhagavan explains, apologising profusely for his younger brothers’ untimely lie-ins), they’re getting ready to emulate their favourite characters, while joking around with photographer Dan Martensen. He was introduced to the guys through Moselle and has spent several years capturing their journey alongside her all-female crew. As is evident from the ambience at today’s shoot, the Angulo family has expanded as a result.
This warm vibe goes some of the way towards explaining how a family of nine (the Angulos also have a daughter, Vishnu, who suffers from Turner syndrome and therefore doesn’t figure much in the film) could have spent all these years inside a modest four-bedroom dwelling so chock-full of stuff. Plastic toys, tattered magazines and piles of clothes spill out of drawers and cupboards. Scattered around the rooms are hand-drawn film posters and detritus from the boys’ many home productions, including a collection of almost eerily convincing weapon replicas fashioned from cereal-box cardboard and gaffer tape.
“There was so much energy bundled up in this apartment that we had to find some way to release it,” says 22-year-old Govinda, the smartly dressed and self-proclaimed “mature one” of the pack. “We found a way to do that by meticulously copying every cool scene we watched. We were total perfectionists – if something felt off, we’d stop and start all over again. That sort of dedication and hard work just helped us channel all the energy.”
“I spotted them weaving in and out of the crowds on First Avenue. I was so captivated by the way they looked that I just ran after them” – director Crystal Moselle
Taking months to perfect their props and costumes (Mukunda once spent six months on an elaborate Batman suit that would make any fancy dress-enthusiast go green with envy), the boys would film their re-enactments on a “shitty” hand-held camcorder in their living room. Some of the footage ended up in Moselle’s documentary.
“When Crystal started filming us, it wasn’t as weird as it could have been, because it kind of felt like the same thing we’d been doing ourselves as kids,” says Mukunda. With his wavy, waist-long hair and effusive energy, he has a charismatic presence that belies his lack of social interaction growing up. “It was definitely different at first to have a stranger hanging around our house. When we first invited her over, we were like, ‘OK we have to be gracious hosts, just like in the movies!’ So we got dressed up and vacuumed the place and put some scented candles on.’
In fact, it was (spoiler alert) Mukunda who first broke out of the siblings’ de facto house arrest, imposed by their dad Oscar. A devoted Peruvian Hare Krishna (hence the Sanskrit names and waist-long hair, which only Mukunda and Narayana have kept), Oscar Angulo arrived in NYC suspicious of “the system” and averse to full-time work, leading him to believe his wife Susanne and kids would be better off staying inside. Family outings were few and far between; instead, he let Susanne home-school the kids and kept the kids nourished on pop culture through a steady diet of DVDs and videotapes.
Suffering, as Moselle puts it, from “delusions of grandeur”, Oscar’s logic comes across as a bitter convergence of overprotectiveness, paranoia and personal defeat (he makes a few lukewarm attempts at justifying his outlook in the film, without making much sense). It had equally devastating consequences for Susanne, who the boys consistently refer to with nothing but affection; as she explains on camera, there were “probably more rules for her than for the children.”
The day the boys met Moselle was their first time leaving the house together, without their parents. “I spotted them weaving in and out of the crowds on First Avenue,” the California-born director recalls. “I was so captivated by the way they looked that I just ran after them.”
It was only when she introduced herself as a filmmaker that the pack let down its guard. Ever the strategic thinker, Govinda seized the opportunity to make a connection in the business: “I just thought, ‘This is it. This is our doorway to new opportunities. We can’t let this one slide.’”
The chance encounter soon developed into a friendship, as Moselle agreed to give them their first camera lessons. “The first time we met her in Washington Square Park, I had one of those moments,” Mukunda remembers. “Just sitting with her friends chatting about movies, it was like, ‘Wow, look at this. We’re out on our own. No one to tell us what to do.’ It was beautiful.”
Relishing the opportunity to hang out with like-minded people, the brothers soon warmed to the idea of letting Moselle film them. “At first we didn’t really understand what this movie was supposed to be about,” says Narayana, Govinda’s soft-spoken and pensive twin brother, who has a penchant for 70s clothing and Gaian mythology. “I mean, our lives were pretty uneventful. All we did was watch, talk about and re-enact movies!”
Their story turned out to be the stuff of documentary-maker dreams. The Wolfpack follows the Angulo brothers as they begin to interact with the outside world, swapping late-night movie marathons for real-life trips to the cinema. It’s an obviously emotional journey for a group of teenagers who, as they divulge at one point in the film, had gone entire years without ever leaving their house.
In truth, it’s also a story with abundant traumatic potential, but Moselle chose to focus on the unabashed zeal that kept the pack afloat. In one heart-warming scene, the brothers erupt into a euphoric living room dance-off to Baltimora’s anthemic 80s hit, “Tarzan Boy”. “We shot that out of nowhere!” they laugh. “We were preparing for our Halloween movie marathon, and we’d just learned how to shop online, so we got, like, $200 worth of horror classics and celebrated by dancing our asses off!” If mastering life means finding pleasure in simple things, then the Angulos have perfected the art.
After wrapping up the first part of the shoot, the boys swap their costumes of choice for matching suits and sunglasses, to re-enact the opening scene from one of their all-time favourites: Reservoir Dogs. The youngest, 16-year old Eddie – who was formerly called Jagadisa, but recently changed his name in dual honour of the Iron Maiden mascot and the vocalist from the eponymous band in the 1983 film Eddie and the Cruisers – slips into the role of Mr Brown. Quickly shedding the slightly reticent demeanour exhibited earlier in the day, he acts every inch the part as he recites Tarantino’s lines to perfection: “Lemme tell you what ‘Like a Virgin’ is about...”
Yet for Eddie and 18-year-old brother Glenn (who also recently swapped his birth-name Krsna for a moniker inspired by the Glenns of The Eagles and Judas Priest), it wasn’t meeting Moselle that constituted the life-changing moment. “A few years ago, we realised that everything we love came out of the 80s,” Eddie says matter-of-factly, strumming a guitar with all the insouciance of a true teenage renegade. “We love all things 80s – the music, the styles, the films,” Glenn chimes in.
“That’s what I hope people take away from Crystal’s documentary. I hope they leave the cinema knowing that movies really do change people’s lives” – Narayana Angulo
Counting Huey Lewis and the News and AC/DC among their biggest idols, they say music is their true passion. “Although we probably discovered the music through 80s movies,” adds Eddie. “We’re obsessed with John Hughes’ films, like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, all that stuff. And horror movies! Those soundtracks are awesome.”
Narayana, taking a breather from the photoshoot in the room next door, says his great inspiration was a very different kind of rebel. “My biggest hero growing up was Rachel Carson,” he says of the American environmentalist and author. “Reading Silent Spring made me long to be outside learning about the natural world.” Now actively engaged in the anti-fracking movement, Narayana is determined to one day make the movie about Carson’s life. “There was this great quote in The Imitation Game: ‘Sometimes the people no-one imagines anything of are the ones who do the things that no one can imagine.’ Those stories are just so inspiring to me.”
It’s also a line that hits close to home for Narayana and his siblings. “I guess that’s what I hope people take away from Crystal’s documentary,” he says. “I hope they leave the cinema knowing that movies really do change people’s lives.”
One by one, the Wolfpack members are coming into their own. But what was it like to see their own story played back on the big screen? “I’ve watched it, like, four times,” says Bhagavan, who has found his niche working as a yoga instructor and hip hop dancer at a downtown dance conservatory. “I loved how it was shot and edited. The first time I watched it was very emotional. It really captured how things were for us.”
The Angulos mostly agree – except for the twins, who have yet to see it. “I’m kind of determined not to,” says Narayana. “I mean, I lived it already.” Govinda echoes the sentiment: “It’s a mixture of feelings. I’m sure Crystal’s done a great job, but I look at all of us as a group, without any lead characters. Sometimes I fear that might not translate so well to film.”
He needn’t worry. The Angulo family bond runs like a main artery throughout The Wolfpack. Despite taking diverse paths since starting their new lives, there is no doubt they will always share their taste for filmmaking. “Ultimately we want to make feature films,” says Govinda, who already has a foot in the door working as a focus puller for a Brooklyn-based production company. “We’re working really hard to climb the ladder.”
For now, the older brothers are working to set up their own production company, tentatively named Wolfpack Film. “We’re still trying to figure it out,” says Mukunda, “but we know we want to collaborate on shoots, music videos, art galleries – anything we could come up with, we would put into the company.” Moselle, for her part, is only too happy to lend a helping hand. “Whatever they want to do, I’m there,” she says. “I’m in it for life with these guys.”
The Wolfpack is out on August 7
lead image: Crystal wears jacket by Kenzo; all other clothes her own; the Angulo brothers (l-r: Narayana, Govinda, Mukunda, Eddie, Glenn, Bhagavan) wear all clothes their own
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