Friday 28 October 2016

The Wolfpack - the Angulo brothers, raised by Hollywood films

Confined to home by their father, the six Angulo brothers were brought up in New York in complete isolation - their only access to the outside world coming from the thousands of movies they watched on DVD. Here, we explore what happened when the boys, dubbed 'the Wolfpack', broke free

Tom Shone

Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30

The lost boys: Mukunda, Govinda, Bhagavan, Narayana, Jagadisa and Krsna Angulo. Getty Images.
The lost boys: Mukunda, Govinda, Bhagavan, Narayana, Jagadisa and Krsna Angulo. Getty Images.

The first time the six brothers - collectively known as the Wolfpack - stepped out un-accompanied into Manhattan (then aged between 11 and 18), it was not as they had imagined. They knew about grocery stores and taxis and buses from the movies they had watched - crouched around the TV in their cramped living room, faces aglow as the bus in the film Speed did its jump across the freeway. Waiting for a subway was different. And the actual sensation of speed was different.

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"OK," thought Mukunda, the third youngest, then 15, who knew more than any of them what the outside was like, having escaped for the first time not long before. "Speed is much more violent. This feels nothing like that movie. This is way tougher." Narayana, now 23, the second eldest (along with his twin, Govinda) found the sight of people hugging when they said hello or goodbye strange, and the way people said, "Excuse me, I'm sorry" when they bumped into him. This wasn't what their father had told them would happen. People on the outside are dangerous, he had drilled into them. Don't ever look them in the eye.

"We were raised to believe that everyone's out to get you," Mukunda, now 20, says. "There's always crime and everyone's got a gun. Someone's going to knife you just because you have a wallet. But everyone kept coming to us and saying, 'You guys look so great. Where are you from? Can I get a selfie with you?'"

The filmmaker Crystal Moselle remembers the first time she saw the Angulo brothers, walking down First Avenue in April 2010, wearing shades and identical suits, à la Reservoir Dogs, their long black hair down to their waists. "It felt like coming across a lost tribe from the Amazon," she says. The resulting documentary that she made about them, The Wolfpack, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, is released in cinemas this weekend. The exact details of the Angulo brothers' upbringing emerged slowly over the course of several years of filming. "Early on I knew they were home-schooled [by their mother], and I found out they didn't have any friends," Moselle (35), says. "I was like, 'They're just their own little tribe.' Then they would slowly reveal things to me like, 'You're our first friend ever to come over to our house.' One evening we were out filming and went to a pizza spot, and Mukunda let me know about his experience [of] breaking out [of the apartment]. I was like, 'OK, maybe it's a little darker than I realised.'"

Brotherhood: The Angulo boys said movies and their mother got them through childhood. Photo: Magnolia Pictures
Brotherhood: The Angulo boys said movies and their mother got them through childhood. Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Finally she pieced it all together. For 15 years all six brothers, plus their mentally impaired sister, had been largely confined to a 1,000sq ft apartment on the 16th floor of a housing project in the Lower East Side. Their father, Oscar, a Peruvian immigrant and Hare Krishna devotee, met their mother, an Indiana-born hippie named Susanne, on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu in 1989. The couple moved around America before settling in New York, where Oscar proceeded to elaborate his baroque, paranoid worldview - anti-work, anti-materialism, anti-government - to his six sons, each given a Sanskrit name for a god: Bhagavan, Narayana, Govinda, Mukunda, Jagadisa and Krsna. In his more delusional moments he spoke of himself as a god. "I always thought of him as a failed cult leader," Moselle says. "I think he had this idea in his head that he was going to start his own race."

The rules of the apartment were simple: never go out, except when supervised by Oscar, and that was only a handful of times a year, and some years never at all. Never talk to strangers. And never go into the rooms that shared adjacent walls with neighbours without permission. "He always had the fear that our neighbours were listening or they were trying to listen," says Bhagavan (24), the eldest of the brothers, who now wears his hair a lot shorter than the waist-length his father insisted on for all of the boys.

The one thing Oscar allowed them access to was his 2,000 DVDs, soon bumped up to 5,000 by the brothers' burgeoning cinephilia. "Movies were our window to the outside," Narayana says. Like all his brothers he is exceedingly polite, with a placid, thoughtful demeanour that bespeaks a childhood spent largely in his own head, but with a wilder performative side that first manifested itself in lavish at-home re-enactments of all their favourite movies - Reservoir Dogs, The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight - complete with astonishingly detailed homemade costumes and props fashioned from cereal boxes.

"Sometimes I think of a lot of our childhood as The Shawshank Redemption, where he [Andy Dufresne, Tim Robbins's character] says there is that one place they can't build walls around. That's hope. In our head, we could go wherever we wanted."

This is how they all speak: in high-concept thought chunks. Describing their inner lives they can often sound as if they are pitching a movie. By turns fascinating and fascinated, shy, smart, garrulous, charming and thoughtful, the Angulo brothers give feral a good name.

"Two things really helped us get through our childhood: our mother and movies," Mukunda, who is not the eldest but seems it, says. "And music," says Krsna, the youngest, aged 17, who has renamed himself Eddie and today sports a bleach-blond shock of hair. "I would sit back and listen to a bunch of Black Sabbath CDs."

Eddie Angulo, Mukunda Angulo, Crystal Moselle, Govinda Angulo and Narayana Angulo at The Wolfpack screening
Eddie Angulo, Mukunda Angulo, Crystal Moselle, Govinda Angulo and Narayana Angulo at The Wolfpack screening

It's not hard to see what they keyed into in the work of Tarantino, with his simmering themes of loyalty and brotherhood. The violence of the movies they watched seems to have acted as a safety valve for inexpressible emotion - in particular their inchoate, submerged rage at being confined. They witnessed little violence at home. Their father's weapon of choice was the long, angry tirade. Like a lot of tyrants, he bored them into submission.

What changed the dynamic in the house was the same thing that tips the balance in every household: adolescence. It started with Hallowe'en, the first holiday the boys made their own, staging in-apartment rites designed to exclude their father.

One day in 2010 Mukunda donned a Michael Myers mask, from the movie Halloween, and snuck outside for the first time unaccompanied by his father. He visited a bank, a grocery store, a pharmacy, before being picked up by police. They asked for his ID - he had none. They couldn't arrest him - he hadn't done anything, just wandered into a bank wearing a mask - so they sent him to the nearest psychiatric ward, where he spent a week hanging out with the inpatients, many of them suicidal. He loved it.

When he was returned home, the blow-up with his father was everything he thought it would be, but this time he held his ground, telling him that they were no longer father and son. "You hit a certain point where you think, not any more. It takes a lot, because you're standing up to the most fearful thing you've ever seen or had in your life. He was this godlike figure, this huge thing, this unstoppable thing. Then, when that challenge hits and we all start going out, he just feels like a normal person." This now-impotent figure lopes through the background of Moselle's film, a stooped recluse confined to his bedroom, drinking too much, mumbling about outside 'contamination'. "Oscar is not dangerous," Moselle says. "It's not like they have to be scared of him any more."

In the weeks following Mukunda's escape, all the boys made their first unaccompanied forays into the outside world - a marvellous, bewildering experience captured by Moselle's camera: their first cinema, their first park, their first trip to Coney Island.

You spend a lot of time scanning the boys for lingering or long-term after-effects of their upbringing. Some of them are dragging their feet a little when it comes to romantic relationships, but that may say as much about the absence of high-school conditioning as anything else.

The thought of the boys' rather pendulous swing from the extreme seclusion of their childhood to the opposite - the toast of young Hollywood - unsettles me a little. Fame is not the best-known means of recovering from an abusive childhood. Creativity, on the other hand, is.

"I see this as a first step of a bigger vision for them," Moselle says. Together with her producer, she is staying with the boys to help them set up Wolfpack Pictures, which has already put out one original short, scripted and directed by Mukunda and shot by Govinda. "It's not like they're going to celebrity parties," Moselle says. "They're still struggling. They still have their jobs. They still have their drive. It's pretty exciting, it's scary. This is their new life."

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