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Thursday, May 4, 2017

Film 'Finding Babel' highly recommended

Isaac Babel, 1930s/ Wikipedia

When I told my friend Joe that he had missed Finding Babel with Isaac Babel's grandson at the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, he was aghast:

"I have his short stories at home. He is one of the finest Russian writers!"

Indeed, he is. Isaac Babel's stories, especially Red Cavalry and The Odessa Tales are considered among the finest in Russian literature (Wikipedia). A Guardian writer has called him "Russia's first modernist."
From left at the Woodrow Wilson Center are Blair Ruble, moderator and vice president for programs and senior advisor, Kennan Institute;  Andrei Malaev-Babel, associate professor of theatre, Florida State University, and David Novack, director, writer and producer of Finding Babel/Photo by Patricia Leslie

Isaac Babel was born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1894 and lived until 1940 when he became one of millions killed by the Stalinist regime. His stories led to his death since Mr. Babel challenged the ideology of the early Soviet Union. In its promotional literature, the Kennan called his writings, "subversive masterpieces."

Washingtonians got a sneak preview of David Novak's film and the search for the author's past and more of his writings when Mr. Novak and Mr. Babel's grandson, Andrei Malaev-Babel, presented the film to a SRO crowd at the Center for International Scholars in Washington.
Andrei Malaev-Babel/Photo by Patricia Leslie
For any fan of literature and/or Russian history, the film is "must-see." It is a poignant documentary and tribute to Mr. Babel, filled with quotes from his writings and landmarks of his life, gently defining him and a portion of Russia. With the turmoil in Ukraine and Russia's bullying tactics, Mr. Babel's reputation has grown.

Complementing Mr. Babel's story throughout the film are Russia's landscape and haunting music whose
composer, Ljova (Lev Zhurbin), Mr. Malaev-Babel and Mr. Novak praised in the grandest of terms. Mr. Ljova's mostly solemn score fills the film in an unobtrusive way and lays the groundwork for the ending. 
Andrei Malaev-Babel/Photo by Patricia Leslie
When the screening ended, Mr. Novak and Mr. Malaev-Babel, now a teacher at Florida State University, talked about their movie project and answered questions from the audience.

It wasn't until the 1980s that Mr. Malaev-Babel's grandmother learned the truth about her husband's disappearance and death. She was besieged with requests for interviews which didn't take long to became tiresome, her grandson said.

After she died, Mr. Malaev-Babel and Mr. Novack got together and decided, "why not?"

They scoured Russia and libraries in search of all things Babel whose life and remnants the former regime had tried to wipe out. Making their film en route and finding places "constantly bubbling up of history," Mr. Novack said they found "threads of truth in all [the] myths."
David Novack/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Said Mr. Novack: "We really immersed ourselves in Babel's literature."

From Mr. Malaev-Babel, a "curator [at the FSB; formerly the KGB] was a bit too open with the archives. I think his successor will not be as open."

Odessa has a literary museum which is not uncommon in Ukraine and Russia, but rare in the U.S., Mr. Novack said.

According to Mr. Malaev-Babel: "History does not change. It keeps repeating itself. Many countries commit atrocities so why do we point a finger at Russia? Why not sweep it under the table?"

Mr. Novack: "Memory is painful. Memory of darkness is a very powerful threat and people don't want to go there."

Whenever Mr. Novack sees the film, "it's different every time."  

Blair Ruble, a Kennan senior advisor, served as moderator for the presentation and asked the pair why the Odessa stories are important now.
Mr. Malaev-Babel said his grandfather created an alternate universe. "People there [Odessa] can't understand what all the fuss is about Babel. Now everyone imagines Odessa as the way Babel created it, which is inaccurate."

His grandfather "created a myth. He had a great gift," but "if Odessa was like Babel described it, we wouldn't be here today."

Founded by Catherine the Great in 1794, Odessa, formerly known as the "Pearl of the Black Sea," is the third most populous city in Ukraine. It is still an important port. In "Soviet times" (1922-1991) and earlier, it was the south capital of the Russian government,

In the Ukrainian-Russian clashes of 2014, about 50 Odessa residents were killed. A survey later that year found no support among Odessa residents to rejoin Russia whose leader, Vladimir Putin, would, no doubt, like to add Odessa back to his empire.

"For a while 'they' tried to convince my grandmother" her husband's writings had been destroyed, Mr. Malaev-Babel said, "but there is a hope" that still more will be found.
Two plays have been discovered. 

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