Winning fans at Sundance this year was Misha and The Wolves, a documentary that covers a story that gained a lot of press coverage, but may be new to a number of viewers. It’s the 90’s, and an American publisher Jane Daniel believes she struck gold when she comes across the story of Misha Defonseca, a young Jewish girl who survived The Holocaust and wandered Europe looking for her deported parents, being taken in by a pack of wolves who cared for her. The story is turned into a memoir, and Daniel has big dreams of success thanks to interest from movie studios and Oprah Winfrey.
Despite the now elderly Misha enthralling everyone she meets with her stories, there is some dispute over the level of promotion in the US, where the book sells poorly. Defonseca brought a lawsuit against Daniel, alleging poor marketing in America and suing for her share of the royalties from Europe, where the book was a success and had been made into a film. Losing the lawsuit and facing a large financial loss, Daniel looks to her records to find anything to support her case. She begins to find that some of the names and details of Defonseca’s story don’t quite add up, gathering pace into a shocking tale of deception.
Misha and The Wolves is tailor made for the modern style of documentary made popular by Netflix (where this film is being distributed internationally). Full of twists and turns, Defonseca’s honesty is called into question over and over, with just enough credibility until an unexpected truth is revealed. There are elements of Bart Layton’s The Imposter, where we’re asked not just whether a person is telling the truth, but what made people believe a lie.
As ever, these stories are a matter of perspective. While we do see and hear Defonseca in a manner of speaking, Daniel drives the initial narrative, and there is a sense that there is a side to the court case in particular that we are not hearing. In director Sam Hobkinson’s defence, the third act does prod at that notion. Historians and academics ask why a story so elaborate could not be fact-checked, and whether our need for heroes overrides our need for the truth. It’s a particularly painful issue when relating to The Holocaust, where many survivors’ voices may not be heard.
While the initial appeal of Misha and The Wolves is the mystery waiting to be solved, what makes you stay is not the truth, but the motivations of all involved. Far from being an open and shut case, the story shows that real life is far more complicated than fiction.
Misha and The Wolves is in cinemas from Friday.