Though one is fictional and the other a documentary, Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009) and The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, 2015) tell fascinatingly concurrent stories: in both, teenagers kept in captivity since infancy by their parents discover, through watching films, an alternative reality that presents them with a simultaneously promising and threatening means of escape. In gesturing at the liberating potential of encountering cinema, both works suggest that films effectively function to make us human, by constructing our sense of individuality and agency. Yet in the absence of other humanizing forces, namely the cultural referents acquired through socialization that equip us to distinguish reality from representation, these young people lack the necessary ability to contextualize what they watch. As a result, movies' aptitude for modeling empathy alongside self-preservation is compromised, with cinema instead enabling a continuation and internalization of the inhumane violence and vulnerability imposed by the parental captors.
In this sequence from Dogtooth, the character known only as Older Daughter (Angeliki Papaoulia) has illicitly acquired and watched her first movies, forbidden within the sealed-off confines of her family fortress. The experience provokes in her increasingly erratic behavior, unfathomable to her siblings. As viewers ourselves, we too find her utterances bizarre – until their uncanny familiarity registers: she’s reenacting scenes from Rocky IV and Jaws. The patriarchal punishment that ensues proves ineffective at curbing the influence of this new authoritative voice, Hollywood’s. But because she cannot grasp how these images are just as contrived as her family’s myths, her acts of resistance threaten to end in (self-)destruction rather than liberation.
The Wolfpack, which was awarded the U.S. Documentary prize at Sundance and opens theatrically this June, focuses on the six Angulo brothers, confined to a squalid New York tenement apartment by parents who homeschooled them and rarely let them outdoors. Devoid of external stimulation, the brothers’ marathon re-viewings of beloved movies, which they memorized then staged and filmed their own elaborate, spot-on reenactments of (see a clip of their Usual Suspects riff here), allowed them to cope but also to tell their story – until Moselle came along. As this disquieting documentary suggests, movies were the sedative that kept them sane – but in so doing, cinema contributed to blinding them for too long to their debilitating, dead-end environs.