For more than a century, critics have tried to convey the power of cinema. Their attempts, as noble as they are, never quite articulate cinema’s particular influence. Perhaps this is because a visual medium can never be explained with words, perhaps it’s because the emotionally intense cinematic experience escapes the intellectual grasp. For whatever reason, cinema’s captivating hold on the human species remains something of a mystery.
Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack (2015) further complicates our pre-conceived conceptions of cinema because it portrays its power while simultaneously proves its limitations. The revealing documentary focuses on the disturbing fact that, for much of their childhood, six brothers and one sister (Mukunda, Narayana, Govinda, Bhagavan, Krisna, and Jagadesh, and Visnu) are forced by their strict father to stay inside their Manhattan apartment. To pass the time, they watch movies all day.
The children in The Wolfpack belong to Susanne and Oscar Angulo, but they basically raise themselves. Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan movies fill their lives. They can recite the dialogues and recall favorite scenes. They often have interesting discussions about the directors.
At the same time, they watch a lot of movies. In fact, that’s practically all they do. When they aren’t being homeschooled by their mother, they’re in front of the television. They don’t leave their apartment to interact with other human beings, so they interact with fictional movie characters, instead.
The film’s subject matter has caused some critics to cite The Wolfpack as an ode to cinephilia. Lane Scarberry, for example, argues that the film “documents cinephilia as a means of survival”. Scarberry writes, “the only way [the children] felt included was through their consumption of film and taking refuge in the knowledge that they were included in something communal — a universal language of images, sound, and emotion.”
The Wolfpack is certainly a movie about movies, but it’s not merely a celebration of cinephilia. This is a documentary, and documentaries explore the complexities and contradictions of daily life. Moselle’s treatment of cinephilia is more complicated than Scarberry suggests.
For a start, the film shows that cinephilia can only take the children so far. That is, they need to do more than watch movies all day to survive. Movies entertain them, but movies do not sustain them. For true survival, they take it a step further and reenact their favorite films. The creative process nourishes them and gives them a reason to carry on with their mundane lives.
Therefore, The Wolfpack is less about the power of movie consumption and more about the power of movie creation. The film portrays performance as an act of self-preservation. The children pretend to be their favorite characters in order to help make their own lives more tolerable. Like most performers, they comprehend their circumstances, and aren’t living in some alternate hyper-reality. Rather, they take advantage of their ability to escape, albeit temporarily, through the creative process.
Historically, many famous performers have cited the escape as the most alluring part of performance. Gena Rowlands, for example, recently spoke about this at the 2015 Governors Awards. In her lifetime achievement award acceptance speech, she mused, “You know what’s wonderful about being an actress? It’s that you don’t just live one life — yours –you live many lives.” These words have been echoed by many performers over the years, from Meryl Streep to Daniel Day-Lewis.
The Wolfpack demonstrates that the process of performance has a positive impact on the children. Perhaps this is an obvious point, but rarely has it been so persuasive. The children live in isolation, and if it weren’t for the movies they make and the people they pretend to be, they’d probably go insane. Performing their favorite movies has the power to transport them emotionally and spiritually, if not physically, in a way that watching their favorite movies does not.
In order to understand how the children survive, it’s useful to turn to Viktor Frankl’s work. Frankl was a noted Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but his career was put on hold after the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. Frankl and his family were sent to concentration camps in 1942. He and his sister survived, but his wife and parents were killed in the Holocaust.
After WWII, Frankl returned to Vienna and focused his work on psychological healing. In his seminal text Man’s Search for Meaning (1949), he details his painful experiences at Auschwitz, and defines his theory of logotherapy.
Logotherapy is based on the principle that life has meaning in even the most miserable circumstances. If we can’t change a situation, Frankl claims, we can change our stance. As he writes, “Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (65)
Frankl uses the experiences of the prisoners in Auschwitz to put his theory into practice. He observes that the prisoners least likely to survive the camps were the ones who failed to find meaning in the most basic tasks, like getting dressed and washing. By contrast, the prisoners most likely to survive were the ones who didn’t succumb to despair. “The prisoner who had lost his faith in the future — his future — was doomed,” Frankl notes. (74) When faced with unavoidable suffering, as in the case of the prisoners at Auschwitz, the last option available is to change one’s outlook. This is exactly what the children do in The Wolfpack.
The suffering of the Angulo children obviously can’t compare to the suffering of the prisoners in Auschwitz. The Holocaust is an extreme example. However, Frankl developed his theory of logotherapy so that it can be applied to all challenging circumstances. Faced with their father’s strict rules, the children find meaning in filmmaking. They don’t let the physically confining space of their apartment destroy their mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Filmmaking gives them daily activities to which they can look forward. Filmmaking gives them hope for a future.
Moselle effectively captures the children’s ritualistic production process. It begins with selecting one of the films they love, such as Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) or Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). Then, one of the brothers transcribes the film’s dialogue, word for word, on a yellow legal pad. The others create costumes and props from scrap materials in their apartment. Each child is assigned a crucial role in front of and behind the camera.
The final products of their films are barely watchable, but that’s not the point. As we observe them make their films, they are intensely focused on each stage of production. They are overcome with overwhelming excitement for the process. To a certain degree, the act of transcribing the dialogue of Reservoir Dogs on a legal pad mirrors the act of washing or getting dressed by the Auschwitz prisoners. In times of struggle, the children find meaning in the most mundane activities.
The Wolfpack is not a tragedy. At age 15, Mukunda unexpectedly walks out of the apartment against his father’s wishes. This emboldens the other children to follow. At first, they are awkward in public, wearing suits and sunglasses as if they are in Reservoir Dogs. Over time, they adapt to their surroundings. Some of the children move out and make friends. Their freedom gives them confidence, and they no longer feel controlled by their strict father.
As we watch the children come into their own, it’s clear that The Wolfpack is a persuasive argument for the arts, especially in impoverished communities like New York’s Lower East Side. The children don’t have a lot of money to make their films. They do the best they can with what they find. The ultimate independent filmmakers, they show us what the independent filmmaking process looks like in practice, stripped down to the bare essentials.
The Wolfpack concludes on an uplifting note. After years of reenactments, Mukunda makes a short film of his own. He is an original artist, and has something to show for all of those years he and his siblings spent in their small apartment. Mirror Heart can be viewed below.