The fascinating path to ‘Finding Babel’

On the 75th anniversary of Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel’s execution, his grandson searches for answers to better understand the man he never met.

Film Documentary Finding Babel

‘THERE HAVE been other documentaries about him [Isaac Babel] and we didn’t want this to be just some old photos and all the facts of his life. We wanted to find a way to incorporate his voice as a writer, and to understand who he really was as a person,’ says his grandson Andrei Malaev-Babel.. (photo credit:Courtesy)

Many mysteries surround the life and death of the great Russian- Jewish writer Isaac Babel, one of the literary masters of the 20th century.

Andrei Malaev-Babel, his grandson, and David Novack have made a documentary called Finding Babel, which was shown at the 32nd Haifa International Film Festival, in which they attempt to unravel some of these mysteries.

Although some of the questions about Babel will probably never be answered, this movie illuminates the character of a writer whose life was cut tragically short when he was murdered by Stalin in 1940 on trumped up spying charges at the age of 45.

“The idea was that we have to look at him from a contemporary standpoint... There have been other documentaries about him and we didn’t want this to be just some old photos and all the facts of his life. We wanted to find a way to incorporate his voice as a writer, and to understand who he really was as a person,” said Malaev-Babel.

The writer’s grandson, who speaks fluent but lightly accented English, grew up with his grandmother, Antonina Pirojkova, and his mother in Moscow, where he became a theater director, actor and writer. With the advent of Perestroika, he began teaching in the US and eventually moved to America with his mother and grandmother. He is now a professor of theater and the head of acting at the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training in Sarasota, Florida.

His late grandfather’s legacy was always important in his household.

“At a really young age, I was aware of who he was... There were always admirers of Babel coming to our house. Even when I was very young, little was concealed from me” says Malaev-Babel.

His grandmother, a mathematician and engineer who designed some of the stations in the Moscow subway, “dedicated herself to preserving his memory” after her retirement.

Pirojkova, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 101, is interviewed in depth in Finding Babel, and through her memories and love for her common-law husband, as well as through the strength of her personality, she creates a sense of what Babel was actually like.

Novack, a documentary director who made the award-winning film Burning the Future: Coal in America, and who had worked in sound design on more than 70 films, was researching a project about Odessa before World War II when he learned about Pirojkova.

“When I saw her, I thought, ‘What incredible presence.’ She has this absolutely natural quality of complete self sufficiency.... She kept the memory of her husband alive, she never remarried, she lived with that loss for 70 years,” said Novack. Impressed by her, he got in touch with Malaev-Babel and began planning the film.

They shared the vision of a movie about Babel which would bring his writing to life and place it in a present-day context, so they set off to visit the important places in Babel’s life, even the prison where he was held and executed. Selections from his work are read aloud by actor Liev Schreiber, as footage from the places the stories took place are shown.

The movie also looks at some of the paradoxes of Babel’s life. Red Cavalry, a book of linked short stories, was inspired by the time Babel spent with the Cossacks in the 1920s. The movie examines the bizarre paradox of a bookish Jew who was drawn to the Cossacks, and lived to tell about the time he spent with them.

“He was the first embedded journalist,” Novack said, only half joking. “It was an interesting situation. The Cossacks were incredibly antisemitic and Babel had a compulsion to be close to death.”

The filmmakers followed in Babel’s footsteps, through his native Odessa – which inspired the author’s Odessa Tales and the memorable character of the ultra-violent and powerful Jewish gangster Benya Krik – to Paris, where he tried to settle down, and then back to Russia.

Malaev-Babel even visits the mass grave where his grandfather was laid to rest, a spot he had been in the past without knowing who was buried there, and a monastery that was turned into a Soviet prison where inmates were tortured – and is now a monastery again.

Perhaps the most fascinating mystery is what happened to the volumes of unpublished writing the Soviets confiscated, and which have never surfaced in any of the case files.

Said Malaev-Babel, “This is a serious part of Finding Babel, but this remains to be discovered...

No one knows the destiny of these manuscripts. The search has to continue.”