In 2010, documentarian Crystal Moselle spotted six brothers walking down First Avenue, dressed a la the gangsters of “Reservoir Dogs.” They became the subjects of her first feature, “The Wolfpack,” which starts out as a look at teens who like to re-enact their favorite movies before revealing a darker side: that their parents, with rare exceptions, refuse to let them leave their LES high-rise. The film, shot over four-and-a-half years, follows them as they slowly make their way outside and into society, though Moselle leaves off-screen some of the business with their father, a mysterious figure denounced by some of his sons. Since the film’s debut at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the brothers have become even more used to being outside, some going into film jobs.
How did they react to seeing themselves on a screen, especially scenes of their even younger selves?
Not all of them have seen the film. Govinda and Narayana are actually pretty nervous about seeing themselves on screen. But everyone else in the family has watched it. They think it’s a pretty honest portrayal of what happened. Makunda said that when he watched the film he felt like he had gone through 100 years of therapy and he’s all better now.
It is surprising — and relieving — when they start stepping outside and they seem to actually be OK talking to other people.
One time Makunda said to me, “I have a hard time meeting people. I never know what to talk about.” I asked him, “What do you know the most about?” He said, “Movies.” I said, “Well, everyone loves movies and everyone wants to talk about them. Maybe ask people what their favorite movie is.” And it works. He told me later he was at a party and he asked every single person in the room what their favorite movie was.
Movies can be a great icebreaker and a way to talk about other things.
They are. Movies can be a connection between all of us. For them, they created these worlds that help them escape from the world they live in. They’re about to act out these characters and experience feeling powerful when they’re in a powerless situation.
You’ve told the story about how you spotted them on the street a million times by now. But when you first met them how did you imagine a documentary could go?
I was really charmed by their personalities. I had no idea what the backstory was for quite some time. That’s what pushed me to make this film. I originally thought I’d make this little film about the making of one of those shorts [they made]. I never thought it would turn into what it turned into. I uncovered this whole other thing, and that took years of spending time together and learning about other parts of their lives.
When you learned about certain things, did you suddenly become nervous about having that responsibility?
Oh yeah. Oh god. I felt it immediately. The first time I suspected it we were at this pizza place. Makunda gave me a little clue. I think he wanted to open up to me. He told me about how he escaped — that one day he walked out of the house in a Michael Myers mask. I was like, “What? Why did you do that?” [Laughs] He broke down. He didn’t really tell me why. I realized there was something more delicate and complex here — that this was a serious thing. It immediately made me feel protective of them and their story. I realized they could be exploited or sensationalized. If anyone was going to tell the story I wanted it to be me. I knew my sensibility; I don’t have that intention. Some of the criticism has been that I’ve been too delicate with the film. I think sometimes leaving questions open, that’s OK. That’s the style in which I make films.
They like to re-enact their favorite movies, which is something many kids do, if not to that extent. What about you when you were younger?
I would create plays from books. But I never acted out movies. I remember one was about this lion god. I love lions. [Laughs] I wanted to be an actress when I was young, but I wound up being pretty shy when I had got a little farther into it. I just saw myself behind the camera, which is fine. I don’t want to go back to the other side.
One idea brought up by this film is how a lot of kids, especially now, are increasingly obsessed with screens — phones, computers, TV screens — and aren’t going outside that much.
There’s a lot of kids who watch as many movies as they do who aren’t restricted from going outside. There’s all these forms of isolation. Being on Facebook all day is a form of isolation. That’s why I think it’s healthy of them to take it past just watching films and create their own versions. That got them up and active and interacting with each other. There’s six of them so they had something special.
When you’re filming verite, is there a point when you know it’s time to stop filming?
With documentary films they take it away from you. [Laughs] I still feel like I’m in the process. I still spend a lot of time with them. When you see a transformation in the characters, that’s a sign. With this film what came when we saw what the mother had gone through. That’s when I knew we had something. When the kids gave me a stack of VHS tapes of their childhood, that’s when I knew I could tell their backstory.
You filmed for four and a half years. How do you stay invested for so long?
You’re just passionate about something to such an extent that nothing matters besides what you’re working on. I’m still passionate about it. If they gave me another year I probably would have worked on it. With documentary film it has to come from passion. It’s not like there’s any money in it.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge