The Wolfpack, Cinema and the Yearning for Freedom


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Warning: contains some spoiler material


If you haven’t yet seen The Wolfpack, I’d strongly encourage you to do so. It’s a very very fine documentary film following the story of a group of 6 brothers who have grown up virtually locked away by their father in an apartment on the Lower East Side of New York.

For most of their lives they have gone outside a couple of times a year, sometimes never. What they did do was watch movies, and then painstakingly copy out the screenplays and recreate them on home video for themselves. Reservoir Dogs, Batman, The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction… all with awesome costumes made from cereal boxes and aluminium foil.

Filmmaker Crystal Moselle happened upon them in the street one day and, because of their extraordinary appearance, her gut told her to talk to them. The film she has crafted explores their life and the family’s gradual move to engage with the outside world.

It is sensitive, mature and hallucinatory filmmaking, opening up this unique story she has unearthed and letting us, the viewers, gradually into the space this family created.


For those who have seen the film, I wanted to offer some thoughts on it, particularly around the themes of cinema and our longing for freedom.

Here’s the thing: having seen the trailer above, I went into the film all set for a rather ghoulish piece, a horror story of abuse and survival. Don’t get me wrong: I think what the father did to that family was terrible, but where I think the shock comes in the film is not where we might expect, and certainly not where many reviewers have put it who have—very cack-handedly I’d suggest—written this up as a wow-isn’t-it-awful piece of through-the-keyhole gawping.

No, rather than thinking ‘I’m horrified at what they went through,’ I think the more powerful and subversive emotion is ‘I’m horrified to find myself attracted to what they went through and jealous of what they have.’

The maturity in Moselle’s direction is to lean away from this as an exposé, as a horror story. What she does is to find the balance points where we see the joy and fraternity and creativity. At those points, we are left wondering if, in fact, we have all experienced the same trauma as these brothers. The true shock is realising that we are all in The Wolfpack, all hiding away from pain, experiencing ‘the real world’ throughthe medium of screens.

If this is the case, if they are simply a mirror in which we see our own confinement, the power of the film is not that they found freedom and can now live like us, but that we could also find freedom from our own imprisonment and go on to live like they now do.

I’ve written before about Žižek’s excellent series The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the conclusion of which I love. Cinema, Žižek says, doesn’t give us what we desire. It tells us what to desire. 

This power can be both for good or ill. The worst of cinema tells us to desire that which capitalism would have us consume, but the best art on screen offers a vision that is empathetic, critical and sensitive, opening up a desire for a world that is just and loving. And this is the extraordinary thing about each of these boys: the love they have for their mother, the wonder they have in nature, all of which they communicate with reference to films they have seen. When they first go to Coney Island and see the beach for the first time, they talk about Lawrence of Arabia. When their home is busted by the police on suspicion of weapons being stored there (they have made wonderful cardboard prop guns for their home movie reproductions) they deal with the aftermath by talking about a similar scene that happened in a film they’d watched.

If Žižek is right, what does The Wolfpack tells us to desire? At the risk of getting meta—this is essentially a film about film—what I think these brothers tapped into in the films that they rated most highly was how important close bonds are. Their list of the best movies starts with The Godfather and runs through Lord of the Rings and a host of other titles whose stories are essentially about the power of human relationships put under terrible trauma.

This is where the film excels: rather than leave us feeling sorry for what these brothers went through (and if there’s a weakness, it’s that the story of their sister is left unexplored) it leaves us with a yearning for that kind of bond, that kind of strong relationship in the midst of this atomising urban culture that is about a unity most of us no longer have.

Trapped by an oppressive regime, these brothers managed to find a way to flourish, to create and grind a lens on the world that, ultimately, led to their freedom. The more complex challenge underneath their story is whether we will have the courage to see ourselves in them, see our own systemic oppression and use the power of cinema to find our way to freedom.