After being locked up and isolated in their Manhattan apartment by their domineering father for most of their lives, all six Angulo brothers now freely journey outside. They have friends, jobs and Facebook pages. They traveled to the Sundance Film Festival, where the film won the grand jury prize in January; visited their mother’s family in Michigan; and filmed an art movie for Vice. One has moved out, another has a girlfriend. Four have lopped off their perennially long hair. The youngest two not only changed their surname to their mother’s maiden name (she has done the same), but they have also chosen new first names.
Yet for all these bright spots, the opening of the film this weekend raises questions about something the brothers are trying to put behind them: unsettling parts of their past.
“What’s done is done, so I just don’t think about it right now,” Narayana Angulo, who is 22, said in an interview. “Of course I feel nothing good about it. What I can say is, I do not wish that for any family in the world.”
Five years ago, Ms. Moselle, a burgeoning filmmaker — this is her first feature — spotted the six brothers, then ages 11 to 18, wandering the streets of the East Village.
Ponytailed and striking, with noble features and soft brown eyes, the boys looked like otherworldly iterations of one another. Puzzled at having never seen them before in her neighborhood, Ms. Moselle asked if they were brothers. Shyly, they replied that they were, adding, Ms. Moselle recalled, “We’re not supposed to talk to strangers.” But curiosity overcame them after they learned that Ms. Moselle was involved in a medium they were besotted with: film.
Over the next few months, Ms. Moselle befriended the boys and began filming them as they partook in a cherished pastime: painstakingly re-enacting scenes from their favorite movies, like “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Dark Knight.” She found their creativity astounding: They used construction paper, cereal boxes, all manner of tape, paint and even yoga mats to create elaborate costumes and sets. They also were not remotely jaded: “They had this openness about them that you don’t see every day in New York,” Ms. Moselle, 34, said.
It wasn’t until half a year later that Ms. Moselle learned why the brothers were such avid film fans: They had spent most of their lives indoors, cloistered in a four-bedroom, 16th-floor apartment in a public housing complex on the Lower East Side. Since moving into the apartment with his wife, Susanne, and their growing brood in the mid-90s, their father, Oscar, fearful of drugs and crime in the city, had forbidden his family from freely venturing out. People were ill-intentioned and dangerous, Oscar told them, and not to be trusted. “I don’t want them to have the pressure, the social pressure,” he says in the film, adding that he wanted his children to not be “contaminated by drugs or religion or philosophy, but to learn who they are.” So he kept the door locked, a ladder shoved tightly against it. They lived on welfare, with only Oscar going out, often just for food.
“When you’re young, you don’t know why things are the way they are,” said Govinda Angulo, who is 22 and Narayana’s fraternal twin. “You just accept it.”
Susanne, who home-schooled the children, said she felt powerless against her husband’s dictums. “I felt like I didn’t have control over my choices,” she said.
Yet Oscar liberally supplied his family with copies of movies — classics, blockbusters and indies — which became the boys’ window onto the world. It also helped them open up to Ms. Moselle, whom they met on one of their first ventures out together.
“She’s somebody who shares the same passion as we do,” Govinda said. “We feel that she’s coming from a good place.”
The singular path of the Angulos began in the late ’80s, when Susanne Reisenbichler, a free spirit from the Midwest, met Oscar, an aspiring Peruvian musician, on a trail to Machu Picchu. They fell in love, moved to West Virginia, then California, then finally New York City, where they secured the sprawling public housing apartment for their growing family. Their firstborn was Visnu, a developmentally challenged girl, followed by the six boys. Hare Krishna devotees, the parents also gave the brothers Sanskrit names, and from oldest to youngest they are Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krsna and Jagadisa.
It was Mukunda, the third youngest and a natural leader, who, in April 2010, at 15, first defied his father’s orders and slipped outside. He was wearing a homemade mask modeled on the one worn by Michael Myers in “Halloween.” Later he said he figured it would keep his father unaware should they cross paths. Discomfited shopkeepers called the police, who picked Mukunda up, and, after he would not respond to their questions, took him to Bellevue Hospital Center, believing him to be mentally ill. He was returned home a week later.
According to the family, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services was alerted and looked into the household situation. After surmising that nothing was seriously awry, the family said, the agency decided that the youngest three needed more socialization, so those brothers attended therapy at a nearby nonprofit for a year. (Citing privacy regulations, neither the city agency nor the nonprofit would confirm involvement; also the Department of Education would not say whether there were records of them having been home-schooled.)
It is unclear whether Oscar Angulo, who would not be interviewed for this article, could have been charged with an offense had authorities known the extent of his family’s confinement. The police said they had no arrest record for either parent. Martin Guggenheim, a professor specializing in children and the law at New York University’s law school, said the situation probably fell under the rubric of child welfare and could be considered less a harmful act than “a bizarre parenting choice.” The Angulo children were healthy and educated, and, at their mother’s insistence, routinely taken to the doctor and dentist. There is no rule, Mr. Guggenheim said, that children must be allowed outside the home, though there is the possibility that the children’s treatment could have been deemed emotional abuse.
It is in this area of the Angulos’ story that Ms. Moselle’s documentary treads lightly, and, when, recalling how they were treated by their father, the brothers do not like to talk specifics.
After meeting the siblings and their mother at a diner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, last month, before their shoot for Vice, I asked Susanne what kept her inside all those years. As she answered, the two youngest, Krsna and Jagadisa, who do not like to be interviewed, pushed their chairs back and left the table. Both now use the last name Reisenbichler and selected new first names based on their love of the ’80s. Krsna, 18, now goes by Glenn, a nod to Glenn Frey and the Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton, and Jagadisa, who is 16, is known now as Eddie, a moniker inspired by the film “Eddie and the Cruisers” and Eddie Van Halen. (Both brothers also sport haircuts reminiscent of the Norwegian heartthrob Morten Harket of the band A-ha.)
What is certain is that Mukunda’s escape was a watershed moment for the family and prompted the other brothers, and eventually their mother, to follow suit. The siblings refer to this time as their “breaking out.” Neighbors who had half believed the family was in some sort of witness protection program began seeing with increasing frequency the brothers going outside in a group.
“The only one I used to see is the father,” said Lissette Noguerole, 47, who lives on the same floor as the Angulos. “It was pretty quiet.”
After the brothers met Ms. Moselle, she became a guide for them on how to interact with others. (“Ask them about their favorite movies,” she advised.) Steadily, the boys, who each come across as strikingly genuine, self-aware, generous and perceptive, met more people and realized that their father’s paranoid depiction of outsiders did not, for them, ring true. “Nobody’s perfect, and not everybody has ill-intentions toward you,” Narayana said. “You can’t think that way about people.”
The balance of power also tipped in the house: The brothers, and their mother, who has since bought a car and redecorated her bedroom, now have the upper hand.
“It’s been a big release for Mom,” said Govinda, who last year moved to an apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and is the only one to move out. “She’s ultimately the hero because she kept the love, and we held each other tight.”
The rest of the family members, Oscar included, still live together, yet, save for Bhagavan, none of the boys talk to their father anymore. “I want to move forward, and I don’t want to move back,” said Mukunda, who is now 20 and working as a freelance production assistant. “I feel if we start going back to the old way of talking, I won’t be able to move forward with my life.”
Nowadays, the brothers seem to be thriving. Bhagavan teaches Jivamukti yoga and is a dancer at the Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory in Midtown. Govinda works as a freelance camera assistant and director of photography. Narayana works at the public advocacy organization New York Public Interest Research Group.
None of them seemed to have major qualms about having exposed their lives to the world, and nearly all of the family members said they loved the documentary, including, Susanne said, Oscar. (She described their relationship as “evolving.”)
The twins have opted not to watch it, claiming acute self-consciousness, though Govinda said the trailer left him feeling dubious. “There’s definitely an Addams Family vibe going, with the long hair,” he said. As for his feelings for his father, he has learned to forgive, he said, and to accept that that’s the way the universe works sometimes.
“You know, we still have a long way to go,” Narayana said softly, as our conversation came to an end. “But I am more hopeful than ever that we’ll all be able to make it out of where we’ve been.”