Misha And The Wolves

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Misha And The Wolves
"In a world where we are, not without reason, encouraged to "believe victims" this film acts as a cautionary tale that while sympathy is natural and good, at least a little light scepticism can go a long way." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

"They were engaged and absolutely enthralled by this story," says one contributor to Sam Hobkinson's documentary - and there is a solid chance you will be too, particularly if you come to this with no knowledge of the book Misha: a Mémoire Of The Holocaust Years. So, if you want to remain entirely spoiler free before watching, may I encourage you not to read on at this time, as to talk about this film in any sort of detail requires at least a little revelation.

"Engaging and enthralling" is certainly one way of putting it and one can only imagine what it must have been like sitting in a Massachusetts synagogue on Holocaust Remembrance Day only to have a member of the congregation open her heart about her childhood experiences. Belgian Misha Defonseca told the attendees - in a story that would go on to grow and develop and be published - about how, after the deportation of her Jewish parents, she was taken in as a "hidden child" by a Catholic family but that, feeling unloved, she decided to walk from Belgium to Germany in search of her parents. If the idea of a seven-year-old child walking in winter for day after day strains at believability, imagine the revelation that she also had help from a wolf pack? Sounds unbelievable? And yet she was believed.

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Hobkinson pushes us to question things from the start of his film, not just in the snowy re-enactments of a child trudging through the woods, but in the brandishing of a clapperboard before we hear some of Misha's testimony. Intertitles also nudge us towards the idea of construction, something that the film then begins to unpick, although you'll doubtless guess its constructive revelation before it arrives - and perhaps that is all part of the point.

Before the picking apart starts, we're treated to the full story of how the book became, courtesy of fellow congregant and smalltown publisher Jane Daniel, followed by interest from Oprah, Disney, the works. Money, however, reared its head, and led to a court case - nicely illustrated by chalk and pastel drawings that form pictures as we watch, another reconstruction, of course. With Daniel facing a hefty settlement, some of the questions she had perhaps glossed over in favour of making money when the story first came her way, returned to her and the film heads into gripping detective story territory,  as she enlists help to dig into Defonseca's past.

Although there are one or two concessions of repetition for the, doubtless, ultimately intended television audience, the film gallops along at pace, as the story moves to Belgium. There it is given a lot of emotional drive by Evelyne Haendel, a genealogist who starts to comb the records for Defonseca as a child. Haendel was a "hidden child" herself and Hobkinson wisely makes room not only for her to tell her story here, but to honour those who preserved the histories of the hidden children in hopes of reuniting them with their parents while also protecting them from the Nazis, all of which acts as a courageous counterweight to what we will come to learn about Defonseca. In a world where we are, not without reason, encouraged to "believe victims" this film acts as a cautionary tale that while sympathy is natural and good, at least a little light scepticism can go a long way. There's a sense of Hobkinson pulling his punch on this a little, but it is well articulated towards the end of the film by Holocaust historian Debórah Dwork. Talk of "victims" and "villains" is, as Haendel notes, too black and white, when sometimes it's possible to be both.

Reviewed on: 02 Sep 2021
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A woman's Holocaust memoir takes the world by storm, but a fallout with her publisher-turned-detective reveals her story as an audacious deception created to hide a darker truth.

Director: Sam Hobkinson

Writer: Sam Hobkinson

Year: 2021

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Belgium, UK

Festivals:

Sundance 2021

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