Misha and the Wolves: An Incredible Survival Story Too Good to Be True | Documentary films
AAt Beth Torah Temple in Holliston, Mass., Devotee Misha Defonseca unveiled her soul on Holocaust Remembrance Day in 1989, or possibly 1990. As with most aspects of the episode that she had set off that morning in January, the details are murky.
She has spun an extraordinary thread recounting her childhood years, from fleeing her home in Belgium after the Nazis apprehended her resistant parents, to a grueling odyssey on foot through occupied Europe, to a living interlude in the wild state under the tutelage of a pack of wild wolves. Her life story had all the tragedy and triumph of a movie or novel or, as Beth Torah congregation and editor Jane Daniel would soon persuade, a memoir. Misha: a Mémoire of the Holocaust Years was a runaway success, with a co-signing by Oprah, a French film adaptation and a prospective adaptation deal with Disney.
But as suspicion of the veracity arose and changed his words from unbelievable to unbelievable, everything would soon come undone in swift and embarrassing ways, leading to years of legal battles and millions of fines.
Sam Hobkinson, director of new Netflix documentary Misha and the Wolves, was instantly intrigued by Defonseca’s story and the layers of meta-narrative that surround it, like a gobstopper of deception. “Six years ago I found out about this whole thing in a little article in a British newspaper,” Hobkinson told The Guardian from his home in London. “This was the court case that was going on in Massachusetts at the end of this whole affair, and it struck me as fascinating, as it was about how and why we believe things that we are told are true. It took the form of a documentary about the storytelling itself, sort of.
“And in the age of fake news, when truth is a slippery concept, that would be especially fitting. I researched the background of this trial more and more and couldn’t believe the story. that I had come across.
While dissecting this paradoxical phenomenon of believing in the incredible, his film is coupled with a tense report retracing the trail of genealogists and other self-proclaimed quasi-detectives as they scent the facts. It reveals critical facts at the same rate they were discovered back then, leaning into the natural suspense that Misha could only invent. “I wanted to approach this as a thriller director, and for audiences to experience this story as their participants would have,” Hobkinson said. “People walked into this blind and unconscious, Misha’s friends and the editors, and they had a heartbreaking revelation as the story unfolded. I wanted to tell it so the audience can share it.
While playing his cards close to the jacket has charged the excitement of what he calls a “tale in the past tense,” Hobkinson also acknowledges that withholding information can be a tricky business. He was afraid to cross the line that separates savvy narrative construction from the cheap rigging of the game. The director explains that this ethical dilemma “has always been at the forefront of our minds.”
“We had this idea of incorporating untruths into the telling of the story,” he says. “We wanted the making of the film to reflect this artifice, and we looked for devices that could contribute to it. But in simple terms, in order to make a documentary film, the viewer has to leave the theater – or finish showing the series, whatever you do – armed with all the information they need to know. Along the way, to make the narrative more interesting and representative of the themes of this story, I think it’s fair to hold things back and misguide the audience. As long as you’ve delivered everything you know about the subject after it’s all said and done.
He does exactly what he does with the help of self-proclaimed investigators who have searched filing cabinets and library shelves to prove Defonseca’s claims – or proof of their lie. Hobkinson viewed Defonseca and his exploitative editor as “imperfect and complex characters”, leaving the role of protagonist to a certain Evelyne Handel, another Belgian survivor and “hidden child” irritated by the idea that someone could transform the components of his own trauma. in a lucrative lie. The old flintlock was at first reluctant to participate in the production and relive events from years earlier, but once she did, she was “open and committed” to sharing both her memories and his thoughts on them. Now the film acts as an unwitting tribute to his memory; she died of lung cancer a few months after recording her segments of the film, after showing Hobkinson what journalistic determination looks like.
“One of the things that interested me [this process] was the way he approached the process of making documentaries, ”he says. “You have the editor, a woman who has discovered what she thinks is an amazing true story that she wants to tell the world. And to some extent, she’s so determined to tell this story for a variety of reasons that she isn’t doing the homework she should have. I kept thinking, “There, but for the grace of God I am going.” When it comes to finding new stories, the experience of this movie has taught me to do due diligence and more. “
He realized he was handling sensitive material from the start: the intersection of Holocaust studies and skepticism is dangerous territory. The devastation of the Holocaust has drawn an unusual number of hoaxes beyond Defonseca, from fabrications of Jerzy Kosinski in The Painted Bird to debunked memories of Binjamin Wilkomirski Fragments to a similar exhibition of Herman Rosenblat’s Angel at the Fence. More than a simple literary misrepresentation, these incidents provide ammunition for deniers. “You don’t take a subject like this lightly,” says Hobkinson. “You need to be aware of whether you could fan the flames of Holocaust denial. There were some financiers who worried about participating for this reason – they thought it was nauseous, pointing out that some people fabricate stories about the Holocaust. Deniers would have us think that if we can claim that one story is false, how can we believe the rest? We cannot push this problem under the rug, it is better to tackle it head on. I wanted to fight against the narrative of Holocaust deniers.
This imperative shapes the final scenes of the film, which do not point to the thrill of scandal, but to the question of who to entrust with the management of the story. Defonseca’s lies and their fallout illustrate the vital importance of safeguarding the truth and the ease with which the appearance of truth can be appropriated, manipulated, and abused. For the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors, nothing could be more crucial than maintaining and preserving records. It requires a confidence that Hobkinson, as well as his audience, learn can all too easily be fooled.
“As we went along, I thought a lot about why the Holocaust stories attracted so many hoaxes,” Hobkinson said. “I hope that comes through in the film, that the story Misha told was present enough. But the context from which she tells it, her own experiences as a young Jewish girl during the Holocaust, make it very. hard to question. The thing that protected her, that made her hard to question, was the place of authority from which she said it. Potentially, that’s why more Holocaust hoax accounts have crept in, because it is kind of sacred ground. I am far from the idea of questioning someone who shares these horrible experiences that he has had.