“Finding Babel”: Family Documentary Uncovers Soviet History

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A still from Finding Babel.

There are many reasons for going to see a film. This was the first time I stopped to read a review of a documentary because I remembered an ex-boyfriend saying that he was a distant descendant of the subject, and I could never get right which of the Isaacs, Asimov or Bashevis Singer, he was referring to. But it was Isaac Babel, about whom Finding Babel is based.

Babel was a journalist, playwright, translator and fiction writer, but he’s lesser known than many Russian writers, including those of the Soviet era, because his life was cut so short — born in 1894, he died in 1940, shot in a Stalinist purge. Babel started publishing stories early on, in newspapers and periodicals, and won acclaim from reviewers and the public despite living in precarious times – during after World War I and the Bolshevik revolution, in which he served and chronicled in his works. After his first book, Red Cavalry, was published, he became one of the Soviet Union’s most famous writers.

I invited my ex to see Finding Babel along with another friend — to avoid any awkwardness. As it turned out, it was just me and my friend and 20 other people: we didn’t come close to filling the Cinema Village Theater that Tuesday night. But I quickly realized that we were the lucky few. The documentary has so many quintessential elements, and during the film’s first quiet moment, my friend whispered his thanks to me for inviting him, noting all of the people that he had in mind to tell about it.

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The film immediately catapults you into the story as Babel’s grandson, Andrei Malaev-Babel, head of the acting program at Florida State University’s Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, takes off to meet with director David Novack and embarks on a quest to retrace his grandfather’s footsteps. The elder Babel’s life was complicated: sympathetic to Stalin’s harsh regime but testing it; and married to one woman while carrying on with another, which led to Babel’s early death.

There is one big cliffhanger

Novack’s camera sets out grazing through green pastures of villages between Poland and the Ukraine that Babel passed through — war-torn towns where the writer recorded Cossack massacres. The camera captures the seduction of the sun, grass, trees and sky as in a nature documentary, but the director breathes even more life into them as we hear Babel’s descriptions of the brazen beauty of poppies side by side with bloodshed.

Finding Babel would be easy to follow even if Andrei’s grandfather wasn’t a prominent writer, but as Isaac was one of the few men of his age to expose the atrocities unfolding at the Ukraine-Poland border, the documentary feels urgent, perhaps even relevant to our age. Andrei also has his own battles to work through: he hesitates to face the fact that his grandfather really was up there in the inner circle of the great Soviet writers — mentored by Maxim Gorky, admired by Boris Pasternak, a collaborator with Sergei Eisenstein, a friend of Ilya Ehrenburg. He was in the pantheon.

Yet it was a time when writers dare not confront political matters. So when Babel voiced real reservations about Communism — including predicting the rise of black markets — he created enemies. That he wrote of his own Jewish values and sentiments — another forbidden topic – did not help.

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For Andrei, pursuing information on his grandfather is neither nostalgic nor sentimental.

“If you’re interested in what it means to witness history, you can’t do with a better writer — tyrants fear the poet and people fear the writer because they tell the truth…a much bigger truth…,” the narrator tells us. As the documentary acquaints us with Babel’s words, his loss, and the loss of his unwritten, future works becomes clearer; Novack supplements the voiceover with animated, Chagall-like figures superimposed on the places where he pointed his camera.

With visuals so potent and narration so strong, I couldn’t help but feel at times as if one was competing to outdo the other. The visuals were pure magic: you sense that you’ve entered a world whose time has passed. At the same time, those visuals are often Babel’s descriptions returned to life, and given justice.

Finding Babel has a lot to accomplish in two hours. But it was worthwhile to watch a scene on a sunny square in present-day Odessa for the unveiling of a statue of Babel, and hearing about the writer from tourists, bystanders and even current Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. So was visiting Babel’s actual apartment in an old building in that city, with stairwells and courtyards as seemingly intact as when he occupied them.

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The documentary also unearths, unexpectedly and seemingly by accident, some World War II history. Overhearing Novack and Andrei, a Ukrainian village man leads them to a graveyard in the middle of nowhere. Hidden by trees and weeds, we discover tombstones of massacred Jews. No one could have foreseen this encounter and it’s a great moment.

Nor is it the documentary’s sole magical moment. The surprises and turns that unfolded during filming opened up new paths to Babel’s history, almost as if guardians from above had directed Novack and Andrei there. Only when they enter Russia and go to the place where Babel was arrested (today, a gated, secure enclave for oligarchs) is the spell broken. Andrei appears intimidated for even venturing there.

A quest to retrace a grandfather’s footsteps

The big cliffhanger is the pursuit of Babel’s works. When the writer was shot to death in 1940, it was at the direction of the husband of the woman with whom he was having that affair. That husband just happened to be the former head of the NKDV, part of the Soviet secret police. The documentary finds that Babel’s file lacks a certain stamp to signify destruction — meaning in other words, that his lost works are probably still out there somewhere. Perhaps someone took them, planning to cash in later. The mystery remains unresolved, but as the film ends, we are invited into the search.

A college professor of mine used to say that World War II and Stalin were “over-covered” by historians. This documentary proves that is not so. History always falls short; all of history can never be uncovered. Things are only unburied, perhaps, when descendants and artists doggedly pursue them with the energy and the resources that can only be possessed by those who have a pure love of their subject. That’s what we find in Finding Babel, and much more.