UJE-supported film “Finding Babel” to make its world premiere at Molodist film festival

On the 75th anniversary of Ukrainian-Russian writer Isaac Babel’s execution, Finding Babel follows his 45-year old grandson Andrei Malaev-Babel on a journey to come closer to some sense of truth. Hoping to better understand Babel’s powerful artistic method and elusive persona, Andrei journeys through Ukraine, France and Russia, locations deeply tied to the story of his grandfather.

Director’s Statement

75 years ago, Isaac Babel, one of the Soviet Union’s greatest writers, was unceremoniously executed in a cold cell in Moscow’s Butyrka prison. He was 45 years old.

Babel was thrust upon the international stage with his series Red Cavalry, a bold war narrative framed in ambiguous and very human terms. One of the most lasting impressions of Red Cavalry is the juxtaposition of Cossack camaraderie against the brutality of rape and violence inflicted upon Ukrainian and Jewish populations. This was followed by Babel’s Odessa Stories, where Babel flirts with the darker and lighter sides of human nature in a tragic-comic depiction of Odessa’s Jewish mob. For many decades, virtually every Soviet was raised on these satirical sketches of men in power and their subservient underlings, a social satire that was not lost on the Kremlin. Babel published many other short stories, screenplays, and stage plays that examined Soviet society with a critical eye. He was arrested in 1939, joining the ranks of well over a million people swooped up by Stalin’s political, cultural and religious purges.

The impulse of artists under totalitarianism is difficult for many of us to comprehend, but fundamentally, they bear witness to atrocity. Babel, took it one step further: he witnessed not so much with pointed blame, but rather with an eye to the textures and ambiguities of war and human nature. His Cossacks are both brutal and heroic. His mobsters are likeable, yet deadly. And his literary reflections on the communist revolution are deeply nuanced, exhibiting both heroic ideals and frightening skepticism.

Finding Babel seeks to shed light on the enigmatic Isaac Babel, not by providing a journal of his life, but rather by capturing the essence of the man and the writer. Babel painted his literary canvas with overlapping lines of fact and fiction. As a filmmaker, my goal has been to interweave historical fact and Babel’s fiction in a way that resonates with Babel’s poetic prose. My use of animation created from vérité footage, the interweaving of stories with diary and archival material, and the unfolding narrative of the journey of Babel’s grandson – these leave us with a sense of the man, his writing and history that defies didactic documentary storytelling and compels the viewer to read Babel; for this is the only way to get as close as possible to his truth.

Upon Babel’s arrest, 15 folders of unpublished works were confiscated. There is no record of their destruction, only an indication that they were signed out to a higher authority. It is my hope that renewed exposure from Finding Babel will result in the discovery of these manuscripts. It is as if they have been waiting for this historical moment to surface. In an age where conflict has once again arisen in the battle-torn lands of Ukraine, where journalists are executed in a Paris office or beheaded in the Syrian Desert, where artists and writers face threats, arrest or even torture in countless authoritarian nations – Babel’s pen draws a line of continuity through history. It reminds us of the danger of unlimited power and the suffering of the common person in any conflict.

David Novack

Director, Finding Babel

Brooklyn, New York