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Sundance: From NYC to Romania, documentaries show people liberated through movies

Still from Crystal Moselle's documentary
Still from Crystal Moselle's documentary "The Wolfpack"

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"Escaping into a movie" is a phrase that can be thrown around a little too casually. But in the case of two new documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival, the idea that movies can actually provide a path into an otherwise unreachable world was put on dramatic display at this year's gathering in Park City, Utah.

"The Wolfpack" focuses on a New York family whose parents believe the outside world is too dangerous to let their children — six boys and one developmentally disabled girl — leave their Manhattan apartment. In fact, at one point the kids don't go outside for an entire year. The boys are home-schooled, but their real education, in what one brother calls a prison, comes through watching DVDs and videos. 

The six kids re-create scenes from movies like "Reservoir Dogs" and "The Dark Knight." They make costumes and props, and re-create movie sets. They even shoot their own remakes of the films. But Hollywood's version of the real world really doesn't prepare one of the kids for what happens when he finally defies his parents' orders and sneaks outside.

"The Wolfpack" was directed by Crystal Moselle, who spent four years making her movie.

When "The Frame" talked with Moselle during Sundance, she told me how the boys in her documentary first got interested in film. 

"It started when they were young when their dad would bring home movies for them to watch," Moselle said. "Because it was their only interaction with the outside world, they wanted to be like the people in the movies."

According to Moselle, the boys would painstakingly re-create the movies they watched in their apartment. 

"I've said before, I'm like, 'Well why don't you just get the script for the film?' And they said, 'No, we had to do it exactly like the movie... every gesture... everything has to be identical to the film. The film is directing us.'"

The other, oddly similar Sundance documentary, "Chuck Norris vs. Communism," is about Romania's Communist leader Nicolas Ceaucescu and how his dictatorship from the late 1960s to 1989 tried to limit access to news and entertainment from the outside world.

But in the mid-1980s, pirated videos and VHS players started flooding into the country. The VHS players might have cost as much as a car, yet Romanians quickly started organizing underground movie nights, showing films starring Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone and Richard Gere. 

The movies certainly took the Romanians' minds off of their own miserable living conditions. Yet by showing what freedom looked and felt like, the Western films also might have helped launch the revolution that ultimately liberated the nation.

"Chuck Norris vs. Communism" was directed by Ilinca Calugareanu. 

When we spoke with the filmmaker at Sundance, we asked why Romanians under Communism were so fascinated with American movies.

"Besides the action and the heroes that were in the films, people were watching them to see what the West looked like... supermarkets, to see the big cars... to see the big American flats and the roads... But beyond this level of consumerism, they would also watch to see how people interact in a free society."

Calugareanu explained that, for many Romanians, American films were liberating. 

"Romanians were waiting for Americans to save them for quite awhile. And we even have the saying of, 'Are the Americans coming or not?' And I think that the funny thing is that the Americans did come, but through these films and through the things that the whole generation was able to see in these films. This was our opportunity to escape, to dream, to enjoy just life, as we weren't able to do without the films. A lot of the interviewees that I spoke to later, would tell me that... we are these VHS tapes."

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