Sundance London presents Misha and the Wolves, now available on BBC iPlayer.
The notion of ‘truth’ is a complicated one. After all, while it can be defined objectively, people often disagree when you whittle down the concept. For example, some would say seeing is believing, while others suggest that we can feel the truth. Then there’s doublespeak, where you don’t lie, but you’re also hiding a secondary meaning in your words; you have been truthful, but at the same time, duplicitous. The idea of truth becomes even further complicated in documentary filmmaking. For example, a single sentence can be spliced, removed, edited and rearranged, providing an entirely different context and meaning. While at the same time, constructed realism labelled as documentary can add another layer of complexity—for example, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. So when Sam Hobkinson places truth at the core of Misha and the Wolves, some may not like the result.
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Centred around Misha Defonseca, Hobkinson spends his time carefully establishing Misha’s backstory, allowing us to experience her fascinating journey. Misha’s story is an incredible tale of resilience, hope and strength as a Holocaust survivor. After all, to walk across Germany in search of your parents, only to be raised by wolves and accepted as one of their own, is a truly remarkable tale. One centred around an extraordinary person. And as the journey is recalled, Misha’s neighbours and publisher only further emphasise the unique character of Miss Defonseca. It’s almost unbelievable, and yet here she is, telling us her story. We’re enthralled and enraptured by this magnificently emotional tale. But, just as we find ourselves emotionally attached to Misha’s journey, Hobkinson pulls the rug out from underneath us.
Hobkinson deliberately designs much of the first act in Misha and the Wolves to lure us in. His camera deceives us yet pulls us in to further ensure we are fully invested in Misha’s story. Here, you align with Misha’s neighbours, her publisher, and the entire world in the fascination, beauty, emotion and strength of Misha’s story. By structuring this little deception, Hobkinson purposely weaves us into the very fabric of the story – it’s an emotional retelling through an aesthetical fraud that is remarkably clever and deviously hidden in plain sight.
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After the initial screening of Misha and the Wolves, some critics decried Hobkinson’s methods as unethical, an insult to the Documentary genre because of the deceitful contradiction held within what is classed as a real genre. But, in my opinion, Hobkinson’s methods allow us to engage with the story of Misha Defonseca so closely that it feels like a stroke of genius. It’s evident that just as Hobkinson’s interest is held within telling us a tale of lies and deceit, he also seeks to interrogate the concept of truth contained within documentary filmmaking. Here, we accept and believe what his film tells us, just as the world bought Misha’s story free from critical analysis. We never once question the possibility that the person on screen may not be truthful, or perhaps even real.
By revealing his deception, Hobkinson dismantles the very genre he works within to outline its inherently contradictory nature. Documentaries aren’t required to tell the truth, and we find ourselves asking how many do. Maybe we are just being fed a reality that is a fractured reflection of a story we will never fully understand.
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As Misha and the Wolves draws to a close, there are no heroes or villains. Instead, we are left with a murky ambiguity as to who the “truthful” individual is. And while it’s clear Misha deceived the world, the internalised trauma of the Holocaust may well have played a part in her fabrication. But, in truth, the divide between honesty, fiction, and reality is so clouded that we will never know for sure.
Sam Hobkinson’s surgical operation on the beating heart of the documentary genre is divisive yet essential. It allows him to stand out as a documentarian precisely because he refuses to let himself fall to a perceived truth. While at the same time, he asks us all an important question, do documentaries tell us the truth; or a structured version of the truth?
Documentaries aren’t required to tell the truth, and we find ourselves asking how many do. Maybe we are just being fed a reality that is a fractured reflection of a story we will never fully understand.