The extraordinary "true" tale of a young girl who befriended a pack of wolves gets a fun documentary that's reluctant to dig deeper
It’s a story that seemed to prove the truth is a lot stranger than fiction. In the 1940s, seven-year-old Misha Defonseca fled from her foster parents in Belgium to try and track down her birth parents, who had been deported by the Nazis a few years earlier. To get there, she made an arduous trek through a forest, where she learned to survive by befriending a pack of wolves, who stayed by her side as continued her journey to Germany.
Naturally, this story captured the world’s attention, with Defonseca’s memoirs becoming a European bestseller in the 1990s, and later adapted as a film in France. But just as the story was on the cusp of finding similar success in the US, Misha defected from the spotlight, turning down an interview with Oprah and a chance for Disney to translate her story to the big screen.
It’s from here that director Sam Hobkinson’s documentary Misha and the Wolves unravels the real truth behind a meticulously created fiction. For those unaware of how this story unfolded in the headlines, it makes for an enticing look at the work undertaken to uncover what really happened to Misha. If you’re already familiar with this saga, this documentary may be considerably less rewarding, the utilisation of talking heads and dramatisations only serving to recount how events unfolded, rather than putting them into a grander context.
And while it’s commendable that the documentary doesn’t attempt to diagnose a definitive reason as to why Defonseca constructed this narrative (there is no pressing need for a documentary ethics panel here), it naturally feels less satisfying due to its unwillingness to interrogate its subject rather than just refashion events into a twisty big screen thriller.
The surface level thrills are complimented by unreliable narrator developments so common in this brand of documentary filmmaking that they merely generate eye rolls whenever they transpire. Ideas about post-war guilt, and the exploitation of holocaust survivor trauma, are hinted at but never really explored, as Hobkinson seems reluctant to add depth to a tale redesigned in the most artificial way.
Misha and the Wolves is good fun in the moment, but ultimately makes for a frustrating viewing experience. While its director can’t be faulted for telling this story in a way that has captured global attention (boasting a Netflix distribution deal and major Sundance prize for his efforts), it does wind up feeling on the shallow side, prioritising plot mechanics over deeper meaning.
Misha and the Wolves is showing at the Sundance Film Festival London 2021 from 31 July. It will be released in UK cinemas on 3 September.Where to watch