The Wolfpack (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Wolfpack (2015)

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The Angulo siblings know little outside the walls of their apartment.  Father Oscar and mother Susanne allow no access to the city and raise them on films and homeschooling.  But with age comes disobedience and after meeting the Angulo brothers on an excursion to the outside world documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle wanted to give them a way of telling their story in The Wolfpack.

Shadow against the TVOver the years I've learned documentaries are less a slice of factual artifacts edited together in an educational package.  They typically have their own narratives separate from the individuals they're focused on and depending on the director it may become a film about anything but the original topic.  I say this because I started The Wolfpack with hesitation as my least favorite documentaries are the ones where people who don't fit the cultural norm are paraded out like a geek show.  Despite the hefty praise director Crystal Moselle has earned for The Wolfpack I still approached with caution because the subject involved budding filmmakers and if there's anything most cinematic outlets like its films which praise the object of their desire.

About fifteen minutes into The Wolfpack I grew deeply unsettled.  Much of this has to do with Moselle's direction and the remaining bit because the Angulo family grew up in an isolated cinematic-rich world which felt familiar but at the same time creepily foreign.  Now almost 24 hours later I'm still troubled by my thoughts on The Wolfpack and it's clear Moselle is a documentary filmmaker who I need to stay familiar with.  But the ethics by way of cinematic presentation in The Wolfpack take the "othering" of the Angulo family, specifically the father, a step too far.

I can pinpoint the moment exactly.  Angulo patriarch Oscar is presented as someone flitting about in the shadows and corners of both Moselle's film and the many home movies the Angulo brothers make.  We hear stories of abuse and catch painful moments of self-doubt and disgust over how Oscar has treated them and we finally get to spend some time with the man.  When Oscar first speaks we see subtitles, and he is the only person in the film whose dialogue with the camera comes with those subtitles.

Some of Moselle's editing also presents Oscar in a villanious and incomplete light.

Some of Moselle's editing also presents Oscar in a villainous and incomplete light.

Thinking about why this is the case sent my mind into a bit of a moral panic.  The Angulo family is already far removed from what we'd consider typical society and I had no difficulty understanding Oscar when he spoke.  It's not like the Angulo children were raised solely on Ken Loach movies whose diction is tied so specifically to a culture that even if they speak English it's with accents and terms even neighboring villas would have difficulty understanding.  The Wolfpack already focuses on how othered but wonderful the Angulo brothers are, taking the visual step of distancing the father further by adding the subtitles makes him a foreign presence not only in the home but in the documentary narrative as well.  He's done horrific things and the pain he caused is evident in his children's eyes and wife's tears.  Do we really need to see him as more of a foreign other than he already is?

I don't think so but also don't believe that question can be so easily answered after spending so much time with the Angulo brothers.  Moselle captures them with their delicate emotions and zest for creativity in a sometimes off-putting but always affecting manner.  My hesitation that her film would not be fair to them was quickly assuaged in an early scene where one of the brother is going over their DVD collection and when discussing horror favorites we hear "Blue Velvet!" from the other room.

The Wolfpack is filled with connective moments like this which showcase the Angulo brothers personalities beautifully.  They are all at once guarded but emotionally naked when talking about themselves to Moselle's camera.  Moselle distances herself from the potential accusation that she may be taking advantage of their hermetic existence by first letting the brothers present their reality in their terms then cutting to the outside world with its ambient noise, mess of people, and varying states of disrepair all underlined by a discordant soundtrack.  I felt like I understood Oscar a little better because, yeah, I don't live in cities because it's too much life all at once and if these kids are as sensitive as they seem it may have appeared to be the right choice to home school them.

The Angulo brothers are talented chameleons and their home movie remakes are remarkable creative accomplishments considering the limited scale they have to work with.

The Angulo brothers are talented chameleons and their home movie remakes are remarkable creative accomplishments considering the limited scale they have to work with.

Another potentially troubling moment is addressed early when the brothers create a Halloween video complete with an in-home fire started with straw.  I thought for a moment Moselle would present their eccentricities as dangerous or unhealthy.  Instead she carefully crafts the following moments with home videos made by the Angulo's in the past to show they've always been that way.  It's their way of expression, growing through art and play that's not always "safe" but necessary, and when we get to see their wonderful take on Baltimora's "Tarzan Boy" we get to see their DIY film making skills in a different way.

Moselle's work in blending the past and present through the documentary is genius.  There's one cut when Angulo matriarch Susanne walks upset from from one room to the hall and Moselle cuts seamlessly from present to past and back again.  She seems to be arguing through the editing of The Wolfpack that hermetic environments provide the intellectual spark but lead to cyclical pain when foreign elements are completely removed.  The Angulos may be hurt by the outside world but their creativity will only give way to endless repetition if they stay inside much like their abuse will not end as no one can break the pack.

Even though my heart was touched and mind entranced by Moselle's work I still find myself back at Oscar and those damned subtitles.  He is a harsh stranger to his family, a family who is abused by a SWAT team in one surprising and timely raid on innocence Moselle caught on film.  I can understand and empathize with him, and he did not need to be a stranger to The Wolfpack.  It's not enough to sink the rest of Moselle's magnificent film, and I wonder what moral arguments she will stir up in the future.

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Tail - The WolfpackThe Wolfpack (2015)

Directed by Crystal Moselle.

Posted by Andrew

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