Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Sundance with Abe: Misha and the Wolves

I’m thrilled to be covering the Sundance Film Festival for the eighth time. This year, I’m not in Park City, Utah, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

Misha and the Wolves
Directed by Sam Hobkinson
World Cinema Documentary Competition

There is an understandable tendency to treat emotional material with sensitivity. Finding out that someone has been through an extraordinary ordeal usually compels a degree of respect, one that seeks to honor the depth of what another person has shared and, in many cases, recognizes the impossibility of truly relating to it. Putting blind faith in someone’s account of their experiences may be the right thing to do in almost all cases, but it also trusts that they are accurately representing what has happened to them and have no ulterior motives.

Misha Defonseca came forward on Holocaust Remembrance Day to share her story with her synagogue in Massachusetts. When her parents were deported in Belgium, she was sent to live with a non-Jewish couple but soon ran away to try to find her real family. Her experience living in the woods with wolves compelled publisher Jane Daniel to convince Misha to write a book about what happened to her. A dispute over royalty expectations led Jane to look more into everything Misha had told her, prompting an in-depth, international research operation that revealed Misha’s story to be less than authentic.

This film is stylized as an investigative thriller, introducing new characters as it goes who add a dimension to the layers that this film adds has new information is revealed. It really is riveting, and the way it is structured mimics the manner in which events actually unfolded as those closest to Misha became increasingly aware of what things no longer added up. The subjects interviewed are passionate and honest, communicating their perception of how things went and should be seen, bringing in their own worldviews and feelings on the players in this story.

It’s possible to see this film as dangerous because it exposes an abuse and appropriation of other people’s very real experiences, and the idea that what Misha writes is a fabrication could cast doubt on the authenticity of other Holocaust survivors’ lives is indeed concerning. Yet this film is indeed retelling something that did happen, which is the gradual unraveling of something everyone easily believed, and its approach feels responsible and properly-motivated. Audiences may seek more definitive answers than this film is able to provide about true motivations and other complicating factors, but it merely assembles the many startling pieces in a way that highlights its most outlandish moments and compiles them in a well-paced and involving sequence.


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