“If I didn’t have movies, life would be pretty boring, and there wouldn’t be any point to go on, you see,” says the thoughtful teenager Govinda Angulo in the opening scenes of the transfixing documentary The Wolfpack. “So movies opened up another world.”
When he speaks those words, we have just seen Govinda and his brothers—who range in age from adolescence to young adulthood—re-enact with great spirit and attention to detail scenes from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. The six boys, who have spent most of their lives confined to an apartment in Manhattan’s lower-east side, connect to the outside world through movies. Their favorites (and the ones with enough good parts for everyone) are transcribed into scripts, then costumes and props are made, and the brothers perform and videotape their versions.
“It makes me feel like I’m living, sort of,” Govinda explains. “’Cause it’s kind of magical, a bit.”
The boys, and a young sister, are essentially hostages in their own home. Their father is a paranoid, Peruvian immigrant and Hare Krishna disciple who fears contact with society will contaminate his children. He possesses the only key to the apartment, and his wife and children are not allowed to leave without his permission; one year, one of the brothers attests, they didn’t go outside at all.
There are many ways filmmaker Crystal Moselle could have framed this oft-sordid tale. Yet what emerges is a lively, intimate portrait of a family finding joy amid oppressive circumstances.
The siblings are an endearing lot; articulate, inquisitive and creative. One boy compares their apartment to a prison, but they also make it their playground, movie theater, music studio and film lot.
Movies are their great escape, a diversion ironically provided by their father, who over the years amassed hundreds of discount DVDs and VHS tapes. The collection includes classics such as Citizen Kane and Casablanca, though the boys admit they are partial to the first two Godfather films, JFK and Lord of the Rings. And, of course, the works of Quentin Tarantino.
“We would always know the difference between real life and the movies,” one sibling says, though you get the impression during a combustible, movie-reference-drenched, Halloween ceremony that’s not necessarily true. The Wolfpack demonstrates how cinema specifically and art in general simultaneously inform reality and provide an escape from it. Movies can challenge our perceptions and release us from repression, if only in our minds, until we can truly break free; they can even inspire bold steps forward, like those made by Govinda and his brothers into the outside world.
In his introduction to The Great Movies Vol. 1, Roger Ebert writes, “Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.” Even Reservoir Dogs.