Documentary Review: ‘Finding Babel’

Greetings again from the darkness. Tracing one’s roots, or family tree, has become much easier in the internet age, and the process has made for a few interesting documentaries. Andrei Malaev-Babel is an acting teacher at Florida State University, but more importantly, he’s the grandson of famed Jewish-Soviet writer Isaac Babel. Director David Novack tracks the grandson’s journey in re-tracing the steps of the elder Babel’s writings and subsequent arrest/imprisonment/execution.

Isaac Babel is one of the best known post-Russian Revolution writers thanks to his “Odessa Tales” and “Red Cavalry”. He was often critical of the post-revolution society and leadership, and it was his play “Maria” that was the final straw that resulted in his arrest, torture and, finally, execution in 1940. His grandson wants to know the full story … especially what became of the volumes of unpublished work that was seized and “lost” during Stalin’s Great Purge.

Liev Schreiber narrates and reads excerpts of Babel’s work throughout the film. It’s these passages that Andrei and Novack use to make the subtle comparison of then and now … much of today’s Russia is not so different from the oppressive Soviet Union of the 20’s and 30’s. Andrei meets with those who have researched his grandfather, as well as those who have been influenced by his work. There are exceptional clips of a 2003 discussion with Andrei’s grandmother Antonina Pirozhkova who provided much insight before her passing at age 101. This is a woman who was brilliant and tough in her own right.

The journey takes us through Ukraine, Paris and Odessa (where a statue is being constructed in his honor). Andrei looks through the criminal file, though once again, the file with writings is conspicuously missing. He also visits the mass grave where his grandfather is supposedly buried, and we learn that Isaac’s charge of treason was later reversed … unfortunately many years after his execution. Andrei’s journey through Isaac’s 1920 diary blends well with the various stops, but we can’t help but think that as viewers, we are witnessing personal and emotional times that we should not necessarily be seeing … absolutely fascinating, but so very private.

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