Documentary sensation Wolfpack opens Hong Kong Sundance festival

Director to attend Q&A after screening of her film about six cloistered brothers who live life through the movies they see

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 August, 2015, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 August, 2015, 6:01pm

The six fraternal cinephiles known as The Wolfpack entered the Beacon Theatre in New York earlier this year for a reunion screening of Goodfellas. The film was one of the young men's favourites, and they were excited to watch it on the big screen with some of the cast members present.

"We've seen it hundreds of times, maybe more," says Bhagavan Angulo, 23, the oldest brother, a low-key personality.

"It's like sometimes, OK, our mum is making a big Italian dinner? Let's do Goodfellas," says Mukunda Angulo, 20, the fourth-oldest and one of the most outgoing.

A moment later he pauses and looks around at the stately confines of the Beacon, to which none of the brothers had ever been. "This place is very Goodfellas."

"Doing" movies has been a long-time tradition for the Angulos, who grew up in a housing development on New York's Lower East Side with a rural Midwestern mother and a South American-born father who converted to Hare Krishna.

In The Wolfpack, a documentary about the family, audiences are exposed to this colourful group through a movie that is likely to intrigue and raise questions in equal measure. Made in relative anonymity by the first-time director Crystal Moselle, The Wolfpack arrived at the Sundance Film Festival in January and became an instant sensation, a popular audience ticket that also nabbed the Grand Jury Prize for US documentary. With its captivating premise, the film also landed a deal from Magnolia Pictures.

It is picked to open the Hong Kong programme of Sundance on September 18, with Moselle in attendance for an after-screening Q&A session.

The Wolfpack is sure to evoke comparisons to other documentaries featuring colourfully cloistered real-life characters such as Big Edie and Little Edie of Grey Gardens, or the Friedmans of Capturing the Friedmans. The film could confer a kind of instant cult status on a group of young men who until a few years ago had barely left their apartment, much less had a media light trained on them.

The Angulos' father - an enigmatic but domineering sort - forbade his sons from leaving the apartment for all but the most basic necessities. They were home-schooled and their father, Oscar Angulo, took care of essentials such as food shopping. Their exposure to the wider world instead came through film classics Oscar would encourage them to watch - older ones such as Casablanca and Citizen Kane, and modern films such as Pulp Fiction and The Dark Knight and yes, Goodfellas.

They would piece the films together on paper, then act out some or all of the scenes. Each brother would inhabit a given role that almost never varied. Sometimes they'd perform just for themselves. Sometimes they'd film their reconstructions.

Moselle did not set out to make a movie about insularity and cinema, much less one that doubled as a social experiment. Walking down the street in downtown Manhattan about five years ago, she came across six young men, all dressed, as they were many days, in matching Reservoir Dogs outfits. Not long before, the boys had "broken out" - their term for their first unsupervised forays outside - and Moselle was piqued by their manner and their story.

She asked if she could shoot them, the siblings agreed and soon Moselle was spending time with them at their apartment, often with the camera on. Moselle says it was difficult at first for her to break through. "It was all references," she says. "Everything felt like a film to them." She was uncertain of where the story was going, or how to shape it into a feature.

The brothers were unsure, too.

"We had spent so many years imagining ourselves in movies that it was strange to think we'd actually star in one," says Govinda, 22, who with his twin Narayana is next oldest after Bhagavan, and who possesses a wry sense of humour. As the only sibling who has moved out of the family's apartment (he shares a place with several roommates in Brooklyn and harbours cinematographer ambitions), Govinda is the brother who's assimilated most into the larger world.

There is something endearingly guileless about the Angulos boys, as if a baby could suddenly articulate its enthusiasm for everything new.

We had spent so many years imagining ourselves in movies that it was strange to think we'd actually star in one
Govinda Angulo

At Goodfellas, they seemed excited by the basic ticketing and seating plan, and downright ecstatic - Mukunda in particular - about the presence of actors such as Ray Liotta in the theatre. "I couldn't believe it. Even though I'm never Henry [Liotta's character], I'm still so excited."

At dinner after the screening, a charge rippled across the table when the brothers learned that Joel Coen and Frances McDormand were in the restaurant. They immediately started making plans to catch the pair's attention. "Maybe do something daring," says Narayana.

"Like the orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally?" his brother replies.

Still, the rudiments of modern life can elude them. Small talk can confound, as can restaurant ordering. "There's still a learning curve," says Megan Delaney, a friend of Moselle's who became an associate producer on the film and is both a friend to and a public attaché of sorts for the brothers.

The two Angulos who are perhaps most different from the rest are the two youngest, now 18 and 16. They recently legally changed their last names from Angulo to Hughes Reisenbichler (in homage to their mother's side of the family) and their given Krishna names from Krsna and Jagadisa to Glenn and Eddie.

If that sounds like a Beverly Hills Cop throwback, it should. The pair have an odd fascination with all things '80s, particularly Huey Lewis.

"It's just the best music out there," Glenn says. "I found it on YouTube. I don't know why he's not more famous."

One of the striking aspects of speaking to the brothers is that, since they are exposed to all manner of pop culture but largely ignorant of the relative valuations society has placed on it, they react most purely to what they like.

At dinner, the brothers explain their feelings about the documentary film. They are hardly unanimous in their appreciation. Narayana is probably the most resistant; he declines a more elaborate interview about it.

Govinda waves aside his twin's concerns. "The release is coming a long time after we broke out, and that's the right time. Some of my brothers feel differently. But we were semi-aware that exposure was going to portray us in so many different ways, so why regret it?"

Bhagavan, too, takes a more benign view of the newfound attention.

"It's unexpected in a lot of ways," says the eldest Angulo, a yoga teacher and hip hop dancer. "But it's all been a journey. There were times, even before the movie, when I started going out and it was scary. I didn't know much about the world. But over time, I learned, little by little. And now it's like, 'What else can I learn?' "

For all the ways the brothers have landed on their feet, there remain unanswered questions. Even as the film ultimately shows some redemption for Oscar, for instance, it's fair to ask how much his restrictive behaviour veered from tough parenting to something worse. The siblings speak of their father in opaque terms, rarely criticising him but not defending him either; more than one used a variation of "he has his ways".

How the siblings are doing now is also sure to be a question foremost on viewers' minds. The answer, like so many things Wolfpack, can be complicated. The Angulos enjoy close relationships with one another and regularly watch movies in groups - now in theatres. They seem to have become much more at ease with the larger world.

Apart from Govinda, though, their home status continues to define them. It is a double-edged sword, giving them a support network but perhaps furthering a co-dependency. Govinda says he has encouraged more of them to move out. For the moment, they are content to reap the benefits of their newfound attention.

In the restaurant they pile on the orders and then revel in them Angulo-style; when a heaping portion of meat arrives for Govinda, Narayana, who is vegetarian, notes to his brother, "That's an American Psycho plate."

Mukunda keeps up the high level of enthusiasm, even when talking about an unlikely subject. "Did you see when we were outside before the movie? That guy with the hair?" he says. "We think he's our stalker. He's been at all of our screenings, and he always seems to be around when we're taking photos."

Mukunda pauses. "We have a stalker. I guess that's pretty cool."

Los Angeles Times

The Wolfpack screens as part of Sundance Film Festival: Hong Kong on September 18 and 26