The gripping Sundance documentary Misha and the Wolves, premiering at the festival today, possesses a fairy tale-like quality, beginning with its title. Those four words evoke ancient stories of children deep in the woods, threatened by menacing animals, as in Little Red Riding Hood.
The similarities go further. The documentary tells the story of Misha Defonseca, a woman living in Massachusetts who purported to be a Holocaust survivor. She told neighbors a remarkable tale of growing up a young Jewish girl in Belgium during the war, saying she was secreted with a Catholic family after her parents were deported. She said her foster parents hated her (i.e., like Cinderella with her wicked stepmother).
Desperate to reunite with her mother and father, she told of setting out on foot for Germany, with little more than a compass and a knife, keeping to the woods. On her way she encountered a female wolf, but unlike in Little Red Riding Hood, this beast befriended her.
“She was like a mother to me. Much later it was a whole pack of wolves,” Defonseca told friends. “They accepted me and protected me.”
A local woman who ran a small publishing house urged Defonseca to write a book. “[The story] had mythic qualities to it,” publisher Jane Daniel recalls in the film.
With expert craftsmanship, director Sam Hobkinson reveals the extraordinary turn of events. Daniel published the book; it became a modest success. It could have been huge had Defonseca not backed out of an opportunity to appear on Oprah. Publisher and author fell out. Defonseca sued Daniel; Daniel was ruined. A European publisher then put out Defonseca’s book and it became a sensation. It was turned into a 2007 film, Survivre Avec les Loups, and Defonseca appeared on television and at conferences across Europe, recalling her Holocaust survival story with great emotion.
But then the wronged publisher, Daniel, began to investigate. With the help of an American genealogist and a Holocaust survivor who truly had been hidden with a Catholic family during the war, they exposed Defonseca’s story as a lie.
Tales of literary deceit can be irresistible, like Can You Forgive Me?, the 2018 film about Lee Israel, who forged letters from notable authors, or the 2016 documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, about a writer who went under the guise of a teenage boy. The 2006 film The Hoax starred Richard Gere in the true story of a man who peddled a bogus autobiography of Howard Hughes.
These stories intrigue us partly because they raise questions of our capacity for credulity, our willingness, even need, to believe stories no matter how much they strain reason. And as viewers we can’t help thinking, I would never have been snookered by this hoax.
Misha and the Wolves uses techniques that are becoming increasingly common in documentary—sophisticated recreations and exposing the filmmaking apparatus behind the scenes, like cameras and lights as they are set up and taken down. All of this is particularly appropriate for a film that’s about how we construct narratives and find ourselves so eager to believe.
Hobkinson wrote and directed. Poppy Dixon, Al Morrow, Matt Wells, Jurgen Buedts and Gregory Zalcman produced. Production companies include Arts Alliance, Met Film, APT Film and Television, Bright Yellow Films, and BBC Storyville.
With its deft touch and compelling story, Misha and the Wolves should be a strong awards contender in the coming year and part of the Oscar conversation in 2022.
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