Six brothers spent their lives captive inside an unkempt Manhattan Lower East Side tenement for years and years. Only their father had the key. He told them the world was cold and mean and he wanted to protect them. Home schooled by their submissive mother, they spent their days watching movies.
When they were much older, once or twice a year they were allowed to wander the streets. Then they returned home and continued to live a solitary existence with only each other as company. This is not some psychological horror tale. This is a true story.
It is now the subject of “The Wolfpack,” the documentary by first-time director Crystal Moselle that created a frenzy of excitement and disbelief at Sundance where it premiered and won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize.
The film came about when the director met the boys by chance in 2010 on one of their rare outdoor expeditions. She was mesmerized by the tall, striking teenagers in shades with waist-length hair, dressed in dark suits and white shirts. They looked like characters out of Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film “Reservoir Dogs.” She followed them, determined to find out their story. In the production notes, she says that coming across them was like “discovering a long lost tribe.”
Over five years, Moselle gained their trust and recorded their story. The boys also had some raw early footage of themselves as children. The fascinating and gritty film had its New York premiere at the TriBeCa Film festival in May at the SVA Theater, not far from the East Village tenement where the boys spent all their lives.
Everything the boys, whose surname is Angulo, knew of the world they gleaned from movies. Even their halting speech was a result of their viewing habits.
Their favorite films were by Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and David Lynch. The boys, who were named after the deity Krishna – Govinda, Bhagavan, Narayana, Krisna, Jagadesh and Mukunda – had some 5000 movies their father brought them. They reenacted elaborate scenes word for word and wore costumes they retooled out of thrift shop clothes, cardboard and garbage. “We always say lines from some of our favorite films,” said one of the brothers in the documentary. “It makes me feel like I’m living.”
Although one brother said of the solitary existence imposed by their father, “We were in a prison and he was the warden,” the tone of the film is upbeat. Viewers will be awed and inspired by the brothers’ resilience, intelligence and creativity. “The movies helped us create our own world,” one said.
On the red carpet, I asked the director if the boys’ father, Oscar, a Peruvian immigrant, who in the film was often drunk and ranted incoherently, had emotionally abused his sons. This was an area Moselle did not want to get into, and she replied only, “I’m not going to answer those questions.”
Moselle described her relationship with the brothers as sisterly so they felt comfortable around her. (Their actual sister, to whom they are very close and protective, is mentally disabled.).
“I watched them grow up,” Moselle told me. “There’s an incredible transformation that they went through, so it was a beautiful thing to see this great transformation and then now they’re making films in the world and socializing and happy people.”
Neither Oscar nor their mother Susanne, who seems as controlled as her sons in the film, appeared on the red carpet.
When I spoke to Govinda, who is the second oldest and has a twin, he told me that life now was busy and he hoped to make a career as a filmmaker. “It’s taken off because this has pushed us to just start relationships with people, and in the filmmaking world, it’s all about relationships.”
Offers were coming in and Govinda told me, “We’re starting our own production company, Wolfpack Productions. We’re working as assistants on sets, so there’s a lot happening for us. It’s opened up a lot of doors.”
Since Tribeca, they’ve been profiled on television and appeared in magazines. They’ve even modeled in fashion spreads. All but one of the brothers has cut off their hair. Some of the brothers changed their names. Only one brother still speaks to their father, and five of them still live at home. They hope the film and exposure will help them make enough money to move out and get on with their lives.
I was struck by how naturally they took to the limelight after so many years of solitude. Govinda told me, “This is something that we always dreamt about when we were 12 years old, and we’d turn on the TV and watch people on the red carpet and be like, ‘I want to do that some day! I want to be in front of those cameras some day and be on the red carpet!'”
“The Wolfpack” opened in theaters this weekend. Check out their Ask Me Anything over on Reddit.com.