Sundance 2021: Misha and the Wolves, by David Bax
Right at the beginning of Sam Hobkinson’s Misha and the Wolves, we hear the voice of a radio personality (one of the first people to report on the story the documentary will unpack), say, “Sometimes a story is so astonishing, it seems unbelievable.” Hobkinson will return to this statement later, apparently assuming he snuck something by us. But the twists to come are telegraphed from the beginning and Misha and the Wolves is little more than a slick bit of human interest journalism with pretensions of a higher level of curiosity than it actually possesses.
Misha Defonseca was a Belgian woman living in small town Massachusetts when, in the late 1990s, she decided to finally tell her story as a Holocaust survivor to her temple. It’s an amazing tale–a young girl hiding out in the snowy woods comes to be protected by a pack of wolves–and soon Defonseca found herself pursued by everyone from Oprah Winfrey to the operator of a nearby wolf sanctuary (Misha and the Wolves is better when it’s about wolves than about Misha). But a falling out with the woman who published Defonseca’s autobiography led to investigations, recriminations and calls for shame and justice.
As each new figure enters the story, Hobkinson grants them their own title card bearing not their names but their archetypes–“The Genealogist,” “The Attorney,” etc.–inviting us to see them more as characters in his yarn than real life people. As characters go, none is more intriguing or three-dimensional than the publisher, Jane Daniel, a woman who seems to lack the self-awareness to not make herself the victim in a story about the Holocaust or to realize how plainly greedy her motives appear to be.
Hobkinson has a few tricks up his sleeve but most of Misha and the Wolves is stylistically straightforward, mixing one-one-one interviews with reenactments and archival footage. A few touches, like the wall of documents with connections made in string or the sudden reversal of footage we’ve already seen after a new revelation changes our perception of the facts, may be overwrought to the point of archness but they’re also a lot of fun.
When it’s in this superficial, News-of-the-Weird mode, Misha and the Wolves is too undeniably enjoyable to rebuke. But, like similar page-turner documentary Searching for Sugar Man from last decade, there’s something disingenuous about how Hobkinson organizes the information; he’s like a huckster, leading us around by the nose. Surprises like revealing that a subject we thought was being interviewed in her home is actually on a set in a studio suggest there’s something about the elusive nature of truth at work. And the intriguing question of why we are–for good reasons–hesitant to disbelieve someone who says they’re a victim is momentarily raised. These would have been interesting threads to follow but Misha and the Wolves is content to rest on its wow factor.