When I met Crystal Moselle back in June her schedule was already pretty hectic. After winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, interest in her film had snowballed. And since then, she and the subjects of her debut documentary, The Wolfpack, have been travelling the world to promote the project.
Her film takes us into the world of the Angulo family – six brothers, one sister and their mother – who were confined to their sixteenth-floor apartment in New York’s Lower East Side for fourteen years by their father, Oscar. When Moselle first saw them striding down First Avenue, all Reservoir Dogs-style black suits and shades, they had only just started to break away from the bizarre patriarchy that had controlled their lives for so long.
The brothers are cinephiles writ large and it was a love of movies that initially brought them together. ‘We shared a similar interest – film and filmmaking and cinema – and that’s really what paved the way. So we would hang out in the park and look at cameras and you know talk about movies and lark around and look at scripts.’ But what she initially thought would be a project about some cool cinema-obsessed siblings, turned into something far more.
After five months she became the brothers’ first guest: ‘And you know the apartment was just so incredible. I was blinded by their creativity.’ As their friendships deepened the process of starting to film felt organic. ‘Initially I had this idea, maybe I’ll make a behind-the-scenes documentary type thing about a film you guys do.’
Barely allowed to leave the shabby public-housing apartment, it became the brothers’ stage, a platform to obsessively reenact their favourite movies with incredible intensity and attention to detail, from a hilarious version of the car-cleaning scene in Pulp Fiction to Mukunda’s life-changing role as The Dark Knight. Movies it seems really can save your life. To make the feature Moselle filmed for four and a half years and ‘It just continues. I’m there all the time still.’
The charisma and funniness of the brothers is infectious, they’re philosophical musings remarkable and as she herself notes, ‘They inspire the hell out of me’. And at times you feel a misplaced envy for this band of brothers, so cut off from the world they almost seem free of it. But it’s clear that the boys have been through great hardship and at one point Narayana tells the camera that there are some things you never get over, there are some things you can never forgive.
Whilst some critics have felt Moselle’s decision not to contextualize what we are watching problematic – there’s no voiceover, explanation, and we never see Moselle on film though we hear her – this approach makes it intensely immersive. And she is keen to stress that the boys ‘revealed to me what they wanted to reveal’ and that she didn’t want to judge or ‘focus on, you know, these poor kids, they had this tragic background. Obviously I was with them for a long time and it took a while for even Narayana to say that.’ Nor, when he occasionally allowed himself to be filmed does she try and control our opinion of Oscar, ‘It’s really just about getting everybody’s side of the story.’
Still from 'Shapeshifting' by Color War, dir. Crystal Moselle [www.crystalmoselle.com]
You can see from Moselle’s earlier work – music videos, promos, ads – that she has a sensitive eye for colour and an affinity with her subjects that brings something different. She creates an energy and atmosphere in her work that presents youth and youth culture without stifling or worshipping it. In particular, check out her video ‘Shapeshifting’ for the band Color War.
‘I love coming-of-age stuff, when you’re finding yourself. I just feel like I never really grew up from a thirteen-year-old girl […] That age when you start to see things differently and you fall back and forth between the child world that’s this fantasy dream world and then the world of being a grown up and what that looks like. I love seeing that transformation of characters.’
But how will she find a subject after the extraordinary Angulos? Will she be hanging out on First Avenue looking for someone on the cusp of rebellion? Moselle confides she’s currently working on a screenplay and is keen to note that the material decides the form of her work:
‘I’m not particularly going to say I’m a documentary filmmaker or a narrative filmmaker, whatever it is. I am interested in characters that inspire me and a fascinating story. Those are the two things I look for.’ She expresses her admiration for Alma Har’el’s documentary Bombay Beach about the run-down Salton Sea community in California, ‘It’s mind-blowing, it’s gorgeous’ explaining that she loves the new ‘hybrid films where there’s a little bit of fiction mixed in’.
Finally when I ask her how the boys are finding the spotlight, there’s no hesitation: ‘They LOVE it! They’re old pros, man, because it’s performance. It’s actually the opposite of being intimate, you know what I mean, it’s projecting; it’s being this character. That’s the part they don’t have a problem with.’