Engrossing doc Misha and the Wolves unravels a fraught literary mystery: Sundance review
The Sundance Film Festival is always spent in pursuit of a good story. With the annual indie event currently underway (and happening, for the first time, online) moviegoers nationwide are devouring its lineup to find the fictions and histories that will move them most. That search sits, too, at the center of one of the films in the lineup: Sam Hobkinson's Misha and the Wolves, a documentary chronicling the true case of a maybe-false memoir, introduces a whole cast of characters obsessed with telling a story — whether a good one or a true one.
First among them is Misha Defonseca, a Belgian immigrant living in small-town Massachusetts who one day shared in her synagogue her own Holocaust survival story. After her parents were deported, she was hidden with a Christian family as a little girl. Desperate to get to her own parents, however, she ran away, traversing a merciless wilderness and hiding from the horrors of the war as she tried to find her way to Germany.
Her friends and neighbors were shocked by the memory — among them Julie Daniel, who owned a small publishing company and recognized a million-dollar story when she heard one. She convinced Misha to write it as her memoir, which Daniel published in 1997. The translation rights sold all over the world, Disney was interested in adapting it for the screen, and perhaps best of all, Oprah wanted it for her book club. That's where Misha backed out, however; she didn't want to go on Oprah, and she felt like Daniel had taken advantage of her. She filed a lawsuit against the publisher and won big: "Misha was a good witness," her attorney says in an interview. "People love a big verdict."
Traumatized by the experience, Daniel started obsessively reliving the whole episode, wondering what had gone so wrong. Poring over documents from the lawsuit, she found a glaring discrepancy in Misha's tale — which is where our story really begins.
Daniel gets in touch with a whole network of experts — introduced by title cards as "The Genealogist," "The War Historian," "The Journalist," etc., murder-mystery style — who collectively investigate the truth of Misha's memoir. Their process of discovery, full of twists upon twists, is more compelling even than the incredible story they're questioning, as they try to fit this single account into the complex, devastating true history of the Holocaust. Hobkinson expertly pieces the story together (including through the use of one basically clever but perhaps excessive device) in a genuinely thrilling search for the truth — even as many of the players note the real danger of such an exercise.
As we've all come all too familiar with the notion of "fake news," so does the concept of an untrue history — or the questioning of a true one — become all the more fraught. The doc's two best interviewees ("The Holocaust Historian" and "The Holocaust Survivor") address this tension with intelligence, delicacy, and remarkable grace, so much that I wish the film looked deeper into that theme; as it is, the insights of the doc don't reverberate far beyond the story it's telling. But oh, what a story. B+