'Why didn't you just walk out the door?'
A brilliant new documentary about six brothers raised in captivity begins a week-long run at the QFT in Belfast tonight. James Mottram talks to the director and stars
The moment film-maker Crystal Moselle saw the Angulo brothers, she was intrigued. In spring 2010, walking down New York's First Avenue, she saw this six-strong sibling group weaving in and out of the crowd. "They ran past me. They had this amazing hair and were all in sunglasses ... I instinctively ran after them." Little did she know that this split-second decision would result in a five-year project - and one of 2015's most acclaimed documentaries, The Wolfpack.
Moselle met them on a momentous day. It was the first time all six, then aged between 11 and 18, had been outside in New York all together and - crucially - unaccompanied. Living with their parents in a 16th-floor, four-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side, their upbringing was the very definition of sheltered. Their father, Oscar, an unemployed Peruvian and aspiring musician, kept the boys and their older sister, Visnu, who suffers from the developmental disorder Turner Syndrome, in near-captivity for much of their childhoods; they were home-schooled by their mother, Susanne, a Midwestern native who met Oscar on a trail to Machu Picchu in the late Eighties.
Such a troubling back story only became clear to Moselle some way into her acquaintance with them. What first drew her to them was their eccentric cinema obsession - on the first day she met them, the boys entertained her by acting out a scene in the park from Oliver Stone's Oscar-winner Platoon. Recreating films was a pastime they frequently engaged in at home, as it transpired; they made fake props, costumes and even typed out scripts. "They could feel powerful being a character in, say, Reservoir Dogs," she notes, "when they're powerless in their situation."
It's these uncanny recreations - every gesture, every nuance brilliantly, hilariously captured - that first draw you into The Wolfpack, just as they drew Moselle (36) to the Angulos. To the delight of the brothers, they've also caught the attention of industry players since the movie won the Grand Jury documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Already, they have met film-makers David O Russell and William Friedkin, as well as Robert De Niro. "We knew the power of the camera - that it could be seen by a billion people," says 20-year-old Mukunda, the third youngest about agreeing to let Moselle into their lives. "We thought about that for four-and-a-half years. So we were ready for anybody that came at us with all sorts of questions and curiosity. We knew what it would bring."
Like his siblings - older brother Bhagavan and twins Govinda and Narayana, and the younger Krsna and Jagadia - Mukunda was given a Sanskrit name by his father, a devoted Hare Krishna follower. The two youngest have since renamed themselves Glenn and Eddie, respectively.
Moselle turned the camera on them from that first day, but it took several months before she was invited into their apartment. Only then did she sense a "disconnect" between the children and their father, who had for years instilled them with fears about crime, drugs and the outside world. "It scared me to know what they had to deal with," she says. "It made me sad."
One year, they didn't leave the apartment at all. "In this situation, it's really about mind control," says Moselle. "I asked them, 'Why didn't you just walk out the door?' They could've. The door wasn't locked" - only a ladder, wedged against it, barred access - "and they said, 'What would we do, once we got out there? We don't know anybody.' It was scary out there to them. They watched movies like Taxi Driver, and that's what they thought the city was like."
Sitting in the bar of a London cinema with the confident Mukunda and the 23-year-old twins, the softly-spoken Govinda and bookish Narayana, you wouldn't think they'd barely been in public as children; they're polite, articulate and sweet-natured. While movies were their lifeline, either on TV or the DVDs their father brought home, did they never ask to go to the local cinema? "We wanted to go," says Govinda. "I think we just didn't take that initiative ."
It was Mukunda who first made a break for freedom, before he and the others ever met Moselle. Aged 15, he defied his father and went outside, wearing a mask to disguise himself. Unfortunately, he chose one that resembled that worn by the serial killer Michael Myers in the Halloween movies. Following complaints, the police eventually picked him up; when he refused to talk, they took him to Bellevue Hospital Center, believing he was mentally ill. He spent a week there.
The city's children's services subsequently made multiple visits to the Angulo household, but decided nothing abnormal was going on. There is no law, after all, that says a parent must allow children out. Still, Mukunda's defiance was a breakthrough. "They'd been pushing their freedom with their father for a couple of months," says Moselle. "After that, Govinda decided to walk out one day and his dad didn't say anything. I think they were testing the grounds."
Mukunda can still remember the first day they stepped out together, "independently, without a guide", as he puts it. "It was a little scary," he reflects. "Usually, we've always had Dad as our guide taking us to places. He's never told us, 'Go take a walk and explore'."
Indeed, the Angulos' collaboration with Moselle was a key expression of their new independence. "The boys said, 'Oh, we told them that you're going to come over and film.' The power had shifted," says Moselle. "When I first met the father, he just thanked me immensely - 'Thank you so much for helping my kids. I'm so happy that you're here to help them'. I think they didn't know how to integrate into the world. And there's me, somebody on the outside, who does know how to."
One of the first things they did collectively was go to the cinema. Raised without the internet, "they were just excited they could go to the IMDB and look up any movie!" smiles Moselle. They've joined Facebook; when the film premiered at Sundance, messages poured in. Govinda says: "People are always messaging: 'We saw the film, we're truly inspired, you guys are awesome'."
What, though, did their parents make of the film? Watching The Wolfpack - the title deriving from the name one of Moselle's friends gave them, so coined because they always travel together - it becomes clear that their mother felt similarly powerless in the face of Oscar's desires to keep his family closeted away. Since the emergence of the film, she has joined the brothers in Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival, and on a trip to Los Angeles. "She really has had a transformation. It's been amazing," says Moselle. (In LA) she walked into the ocean with her clothes on - she felt so free. It was beautiful."
As for Oscar, he's been left behind on these trips. "They don't want him to (come)," says Moselle. Though he doesn't come across as an outright monster, he is a threatening, shadowy presence in the film, interviewed only once and mostly seen cosseted away in front of the television, drinking. "I think he had his dark side," says Moselle. "To mind-control your kids and your wife." So, what did he make of the movie? "He felt it was honest. He said it was educational, to see what his kids thought."
What's heartening is how the brothers have all progressed since filming ended last year. Govinda and Mukunda now are both working as assistants in film production; Eddie (17) and Glenn (18) want to start a band; Bhagavan (24) teaches yoga; and Narayana works for an activist organisation, Nypirg - the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Together with Moselle, they've also set up Wolfpack Productions, in the hope of collaborating on a film. It's difficult to imagine them making a movie half as extraordinary as The Wolfpack, however. While the twins are "too self-conscious" to watch it, Mukunda has seen it five times. It's helped him reconcile with his past. "As uncomfortable as some moments were, that's the greatest thing about it," he says. "There's emotion there." He smiles. "I wouldn't change a thing."
- The Wolfpack, QFT, Belfast, tonight and tomorrow , 6.20pm, Sunday, 5.50pm, Monday and Tuesday, 8.50pm, Wednesday, 8.35pm and Thursday, 8.50pm