Far from being raised by wolves in the wild, the seven Angulo children—six brothers and a sister– were brought up by Hare Krishnas and movie DVDs in a small apartment on Manhattan’s lower east side. This intensely inbred and mediated life produced both trauma and brilliant creativity.
The siblings’ father, Oscar, feared for their safety were they to leave the apartment for the drug- and crime-logged streets. He also dreaded their contamination by materialistic values. A visionary and a tyrant, he sired his own commune with his oppressed wife, Susanne. Like her offspring, Susanne was kept locked in the apartment except, for medical appointments, for almost two decades. Oscar, who refused to work as a form of social protest, went out only to bring back food. Director Crystal Moselle tells this story in her documentary, The Wolfpack (2015), suturing years of home movies to interviews with family members today.
The parents named their children Bhagavan, Govinda, Jagadisa, Krsna, Mukunda, Narayana, and Visnu. Oscar wanted more children, but mercifully Susanne entered menopause before the apartment could grow any more crowded and the genetic material any more fragile (Visnu, the youngest and a daughter, is mentally disabled). The names are a clue to the family’s intertwined identities. In the Hindu pantheon, Visnu (or Vishnu) is also called Narayana, and has four arms. Two of the Angulo brothers, Govinda and Narayana, are fraternal twins. Amid all this doubling and splitting, could Oscar even tell his sons apart—all tall, thin, olive-skinned, with waist-length black hair they were forbidden to cut? Were they unique individuals to him, or projections of his own self-fashioning as a utopian patriarch?
By the time Moselle met the brothers on one of their early ventures outside of the apartment, the regime had begun to deteriorate. Mukunda had driven in the thin edge of the wedge by escaping one day while his father was food shopping. The young man drifted hesitantly along the street in a papier-mache mask until taken by the police to a mental hospital. After his return a week later, the six healthy teenage boys realized that nothing could hold them, not even Oscar’s fear or their own. Their adored mother quietly rooted for them to go out and have a good time.
The huge irony is that Oscar’s experiment did not entirely fail. While the boys admit to feeling awkward in social situations (not to mention their resentment toward their father), they are on the whole sensitive, intelligent, well-spoken, and emotionally intact, with a great capacity for affection toward their mother and sister and for sheer joy in the brave new world they are discovering of urban riverfront and upstate apple orchard. They are more mature and likable than the average American teenager. And most amazing, they are feverishly, stylishly, ingeniously creative.
The drug Oscar fed them to keep them in lotus land was movies. The boys spent days crammed in front of a small TV, watching films by their heroes, Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, learning the scripts by heart, and reenacting scenes with handmade costumes and props. The duct-taped guns looked so good that once someone watching from the street called the authorities, who burst into the apartment and cuffed the entire family. When Moselle first encountered them, they were dressed alike in black suits and shades, as if they had escaped, not from their claustrophobic digs, but from Reservoir Dogs.
The visual artist Christian Boltanski has written that he and his siblings lived in their parents’ apartment until they were adults, all sleeping together in the same room and locking arms when they ventured out into the city. Similarly, extreme constraints have generated art in the case of the Angulo brothers. While Moselle’s film does not follow each one as they begin to individuate (subsequent media coverage indicates that the younger boys have changed their names and are playing rock and roll), the director does choose to end the documentary with the making of a film within a film—s short directed by Mukunda featuring each of his family members in a fantastic mask or make-up representing an emotion. Susanne, for example, wears a mask of terminal anguish; Oscar sports a third eye on his forehead; and Visnu holds up a huge grin. The visuals are flat-out brilliant.
And another character has joined the scene–a young woman in a red dress who gestures flirtatiously to the viewer. Fair-skinned, blonde, and female, she is very other to the Angulo boys. She represents the world.