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Sundance 2015, Dispatch 3: The Wolfpack, Western and Dreamcatcher

The Wolfpack

I stopped taking notes after a while during The Wolfpack; I was feeling a bit too disturbed to keep at it and it seemed somewhat besides the point. Crystal Moselle’s first feature follows the Angulo brothers: six siblings, born to father Oscar, who for something like 15 years never left their LES apartment, save sporadic supervised summer walks. Oscar named them all Hare Krishna style — Govinda, Bhagavan, etc. — and amassed a collection of some 5,000 films, their sole meaningful connection to the outside world. They were homeschooled and lived in a state of fear — Oscar’s past/present (?) abuse of wife Susanne is alluded to but not probed — and, at the moment Moselle met them, they had just started roaming NYC in defiance of their dad.

The six take Reservoir Dogs as a particular touchstone, striding through the subway in the appropriate suits and sunglasses. When the pack enact the car-cleaning scene from Pulp Fiction, it’s very clear that, isolated as they are, they could have no comprehension of the various dimensions of the racial dynamics they’re enacting. The lively Sundance world premiere had the audience rolling in the aisles at the sight of the brothers shooting each other with guns made of cardboard and tape and running through QT’s greatest hits — and this might be funny, in a low-bar YouTube kind of way, except that the subject is child abuse.

I don’t know what else to call house arrest and forced seclusion; it’s not a term used in the press kit, where Moselle stresses that at the moment she met the siblings they had emerged into the world and seemed to be OK as far as she could tell. The boys talk openly about feeling unlovable and lonely, but nonetheless they stay in the apartment for a while even after they start exploring the outside world; to enroll in public school would be to deny their mom the monthly government payment she gets for homeschooling. The film begins when the father’s already been defanged: mostly out of sight, sent back to his room when raging drunk, despised and cut off from his sons. Home movies from more repressive times (shades of Capturing The Friedmans, which is rivaled for sheer sickening impact throughout) show Oscar kissing his children good night one by one and leading them through fake band practice with cardboard instruments. It could be the ominous music (for once, I didn’t mind the emotional prodding, since it’s the closest the scrupulously/problematically non-intervening movie comes to acknowledging what I was feeling while watching it), but it seems downright culty in there, desperately cut off at the very least.

For a while, The Wolfpack plays as nonfiction mystery: the more you learn about how the brothers were raised, the more you fear what revelation’s coming next, but it’s not that kind of movie. Moselle stuck with it as the siblings got to the other side, more or less. They start moving out of the apartment one by one and find themselves drawn to individual pursuits — one enters the world of film crewing, another’s drawn to anti-fracking demonstrations — so maybe their father’s inchoate theory that he cut them off from outside influences (drugs, violence, public school ostracization) so that they might find themselves have some kind of awful vindication.

Not every move Moselle makes is successful — an impressionistic, chaotic montage subjectively simulating the brothers’ first impressions of the outside world when they finally encounter it unsupervised is obvious in intent but falls flat — but she has tremendous footage and largely does right by it, teasing out the psychological implications with compact precision. With editor Enat Sidi, a tremendous amount of compression has been done in the homestretch to suggest a blur of barely processable new experiences rather than a “Where Are They Now” epilogue. To me, this is primarily a document about young men whose personalities have been heavily molded at such an impressionable age that every asocialization-molded tic seems impossibly hard to undo (forget the inevitable difficulties of learning empathy and relating to others). I was shaken, then unexpectedly given a little comfort by seeing the brothers start to make their way out into the world with some success. This feint towards everything working out is corrected by the end credits: the siblings’ own movie reflecting their feelings in a Lynchian idiom, with made-up grotesques in front of a cardboard mirror pulling faces like Laura Palmer in the Red Room, which scared the hell out of me. There are experiences that can be dealt with to some extent but never fully exorcised or come to terms with.

There are literal and metaphorical storms on the horizon in Western, which is already a time capsule. The footage goes back quite a way: one of the main subjects — Eagle Pass, TX mayor Chad Foster — died in 2012, and the bulk of the film appears to have been shot in 2010-11 (I’m guessing based on both Foster’s death and the dates of the car registration tags onscreen). It’s hard now, when it’s become such a mindlessly polarized talking point — let’s build a fence on the border, etc. — to recall a time when mainstream American conservative politics wasn’t intensely fixated on illegal immigration and cartel violence, but the Ross Bros.’ film captures the moment cartel awareness was really penetrating these shores.

Relations between Eagle Pass and south-of-the-border sister city Piedras Negras are friendly, if perhaps necessarily silent about about any imbalance in the economics involved. Wall sits in an office where a framed picture (needlepoint? The lo-res digital, another sign of its time, makes it hard to tell) boasts “Just Another Day in Paradise”; Western doesn’t ask for whom it’s paradise and under which circumstances. Nonetheless, as a native Texan it’s my experience that the lunatic minutemen patroling the border with itchy trigger fingers don’t represent the pragmatic majority of a state that understands exactly where its labor force is coming from. For me, one of the nice things about Western is its highlighting of a functional, non-xenophobic liminal zone, as far removed from the posturing of its lunatic governor as from the dusty border noir terrain of Rolling Thunder and No Country for Old Men.

There is much to be fascinated by, but the diffuse footage isn’t sculpted into a synthetic whole. That’s a trick the brothers pulled off in Tchoupitoulas, whose “one night in New Orleans” framework was assembled from months of footage. This is their first feature to follow a linear narrative as it unfolds in time from start to finish; 45635 and Tchoupitoulas are instead assembled primarily on the basis of exploring a confined area. This new method of organization is a reorientation, but to my mind comes out regrettably shapeless. An early parade celebrating the towns’ relationship is a good example of how smartly stitching together footage can create an impressionistic sum greater than the literal parts. We see the parade from the street, outside a grocery store from the POV of young Mexican children, from the inside of a country and western bar, et al., suggesting the diversity of viewpoints converging upon a single event, but Western rarely achieves this kind of magisterial whole on a regular basis. I like the unashamed boldness of cutting away from a nighttime musical celebration to a storm on the horizon: there’s no reason to believe that weather was literally happening that night, but as a blunt metaphor it hits the mark. Ditto the act-demarcating fades to black every time someone is killed by the cartels, an act both unnecessary to depict (that kind of imagery plays straight into the hands of the xenophobes) and serving as a formal break onscrean. But as deaths lead to cessation of cattle transport across the border, the town’s economic activity stops dead and so does the movie.

Kim Longinotto is a veteran British documentarian focusing primarily on the repression of and aggression against women around the world. The only film of hers I’d seen previously was the excellent Divorce, Iranian Style (exactly what it sounds like) and went to Dreamcatcher on faith without even bothering to look up the subject matter. That turned out to be the Dreamcatcher Foundation, a Chicago organization that offers help to women in danger. The broad goal is to stop human trafficking, the specific mission to help sex workers, sexually abused teenagers et al. Longinotto primarily focuses on tireless co-founder Brenda Myers-Powell as she cruises the streets at night in a van to reach out to prostitutes, counsels incarcerated hookers in Prostitutes Anonymous (now Sex Workers Anonymous) and works with teenage girls in high school who’ve been molested, raped and otherwise abused.

The opening shot — the passenger window view of a grim urban stretch pocketed by Walgreen’s and White Castle, interchangeable with many such blocks in the US — gives way to a dazzling helicopter shot of the city, the usual thousand points of skyscraper and freeway lights. Rather than stressing the disparity between grotty ground view and the glossier overhead vantage point, Dreamcatcher unites the two by giving voice to abused sex workers, whose awful stories frequently begin with entering a client’s car. Longinotto invests this stock nighttime landscape with a great deal of menace: all of those lights aren’t just stand-ins for the many people of the Big City but carriers of potential menace.

The straight talk throughout from all is bracing and depressing, the volume of testimony making the urgency of Dreamcatcher’s work self-evident. Longinotto gets special commendation for an unnerving conversation with Homer, Brenda’s former pimp, now reformed and penitent. After a classroom talk, Longinotto interviews him in his living room, where Homer says that while he’s reformed, his violent father — the model for his former behavior — seems to have learned nothing. Longinotto then cuts to the old man himself, who’s present the whole time, and then to his long-abused wife, whose comment on her son is limited to a missing-the-point “I’d feel much better if he gave himself to God.” And scene! In one unflinching segment, we’ve got the thornily unresolved dynamics of a father-passed-to-son abusive relationship in one uneasy place.

Serving as a repository of testimony and a series of portraits of solidarity in helping effect healing and change when the official infrastructure just isn’t there is a noble goal. The ending dose of upbeat music to indicate Hope For The Future — leading directly to a link with a URL for the Foundation — indicates a laudable polemical commitment blurring the lines into advertorial territory. Dreamcatcher is enlightening and sobering, but as a piece of craft it doesn’t match the commitment of its subject; it’s effectively a selective database of recorded testimony rather than a sculpted take on same. I crave more than advocacy reportage, so take that evaluation as you will.

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