I was not aware of Misha Defonseca before watching Sam Hobkinson’s gripping and unsettling documentary, Misha and the Wolves. Every twist and turn in this incredible story was new to me and I was absolutely riveted. If you do not know the details of this tale, do not be tempted by Google. The best way to watch this film is with as little prior knowledge as possible.
As a result, my review of Misha and the Wolves will be spoiler-free until after the trailer. What I can divulge is that the film follows what happened when, in the early 1990s, Defonseca began to tell friends in the Jewish community of Massachusetts about her terrible experiences as a young girl during the Holocaust.
She revealed that her parents had been deported to Auschwitz concentration camp and that she had become one of many “hidden” children - living in the house of a Catholic family. Aged just seven and desperate to find her mother and father, she decided to run away. She walked east across Europe, eating earthworms and insects, evading the Nazis and befriending wolves on the way.
When local publisher, Jane Daniel, heard Defonseca’s account she knew that the story would make an incredible book. Daniel persuaded Defonseca to write her memoir, which attracted media attention before it had even been published. Disney bought the film rights and translation rights were sold around the world. By the time the book was finished, Oprah’s Book Club expressed an interest, all but guaranting the book's international bestseller status.
Then something strange happened. Defonseca became uncooperative and her relationship with Daniel broke down. A three-year feud between the women ended up in court. It was only then that Daniel decided to look at Defonseca’s story in more detail. Hobkinson’s documentary follows what happened next.
Hobkinson describes Misha and the Wolves as part history documentary, part thriller. The director often withholds information and indulges in misdirection - enabling his audience to experience the story as it unfolded. However, I did not feel manipulated. Instead, the film encouraged me to consider how we process (and sometimes commoditise) trauma, how we remember and commemorate historic events and the responsibility we all have in the sharing of important stories - particularly as we pass them from one generation to the next.
Warning… some spoilers follow below.
When Sam Hobkinson first discovered the feud between Misha Defonseca and Jane Daniel, he thought that the story seemed “too good to be true”. This appealed to him as filmmaker. “It was a story that contained equal measures of truth and fiction and one through which I could explore themes of memory, history and storytelling,” the director explains.
Misha and the Wolves also examines the meaning and power of truth. “This is the age of ‘fake news’ and this is a documentary for the ‘post truth’ era," Hobkinson says. "The truth is in there somewhere, but you have to peel away the layers to find it. I have always been fascinated by unreliable narrators and, when placed within the documentary genre, they give the filmmaker a twist on the idea of ‘truth’.
“This is something we were able to echo in the film’s form. It was also important for me to make reference to the fact that we, the filmmakers, are just another in a line of people who are to some extent exploiting this story for our own purposes. So I wanted the film to be self-referential, to show that we are constructing another version of the story, of the truth.”
Throughout the documentary, Hobkinson makes us question the motivation of Daniels and Defonseca. Who is the hero? Who is the villain? Both are presented as complex and flawed. Indeed, the only contributor that I felt sure about was Evelyne Haendel. A hidden child herself, I felt both moved and honoured to hear her powerful and heartbreaking story.
“It was amazing to discover that one of the citizen detectives who got to the bottom of Misha’s story was herself a Jewish hidden child in Brussels during the war,” says Hobkinson. “ For me she is the one character who is completely unencumbered by ulterior motive. She was full of life, very generous with her time and her contribution and I found her an incredible human being. It seemed fitting that she should be the character who has the last word in the film”.
Misha and the Wolves needs Haendel to put its many layers of deception into context. Her devastating childhood experiences inform the film and remind us why Defonseca’s story is so outrageous, so damaging and so dangerous. Haendel also prevents Hobkinson's film from being used as propoganda by Holocaust deniers.
“There were some financiers who were worried about participating in this film,” the director explains. “They felt queasy about highlighting the fact that people fabricate holocauststories because they rightly knew that this played into the hands of Holocaust deniers, who claim that if one story is not true then how can we believe any of them.
“While I respect their choice not to participate, I do not think this is an issue that should be pushed under the rug, but one that should be tackled head on and put in context in a serious and responsible fashion. By doing this, I believe that this film will claim the narrative back from the holocaust deniers.”
The stories at the heart of Misha and the Wolves have lingered long in my mind. Why did Defonseca do what she did - and for so long? What responsibility does Daniel bear? What responsibility do we all have in protecting the truth? These feel like such important issues in society today where it is vitally important to remember the real stories about the Holocaust.