Interview: 'Finding Babel' director David Novack
Isaac Babel is not a household name in the United States. Despite the fact that the Russian playwright, journalist and author has been dead for more than 75 years, he remains a figure filmmaker David Novack believes is as relevant today as he was in the 1920s.
"This is a writer we should be reading. We should be reading him today," Novack says of the writer whose works criticized the Community Party. Novack's latest documentary, "Finding Babel" (holding its world premiere screening during the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival), follows Isaac Babel's grandson Andrei Malaev-Babel on a journey to learn about the grandfather he never met. (Watch the trailer)
"The first primary goal was to show this amazing writer who is wildly famous among the Russian-speaking diaspora - while he is much more obscure outside of that," Novack says. "Number two is to see how the echoes of the past continue forward - showing Stalinism."
Novack says he first learned of Babel in 1993 while he was filming in Odessa, Ukraine. He was working on a project about his great-great uncle who was a famous composer in Odessa.
"I had to look to look very deeply to find material about Odessa before the revolution," Novack says. "I turned to literature - one of the first things I found was Isaac Babel's 'Odessa Tales.' I fell in love with the stories."
That chance discovery led to Novack seeking to learn more about Babel. In the years that followed, Novack eventually met and interviewed Babel's widow, Antonina Pirozhkova. Although she died in 2010, Pirozhkova's interview are also woven into "Finding Babel." It was during these interviews that Novack met Babel's grandson Andrei Malaev-Babel. Novack says he called Andrei to give his condolences when Pirozhkova passed away.
"The grandson mentioned 'I was planning going over to Ukraine, Russia and France and really investigate my grandfather and what his writing was all about - in a way that I feel like I can only do if I go there," Novack recalls. With that, Novack says he asked to come with Andrei.
Novack accompanied Andrei on his journey through Ukraine, France and Russia, walking the same streets and towns that inspired Isaac Babel to write "Red Cavalry" and "Odessa Stories." The documentary composes Babel's own words - from his diaries and his published works - against the visuals of Andrei's effort to retrace his grandfather's steps.
"This was really was, first and foremost, Andrei's journey," Novack said. "About 95 percent of what we covered and who we met was actually arranged by him. He was on this personal journey and I was going to allow him to direct that aspect of the journey."
Although the documentary focuses on Babel's experience during Josef Stalin's Russia, Novack says the danger of history repeating itself became a fundamental theme of "Finding Babel."
"Reexamining that period of history is very important to understanding today's conflict between Ukraine and Russia," Novack says. "I filmed all of this before that conflict existed. So I wasn't quite looking at through that prism while I was making the film - but it turns out to be very timely."
Isaac Babel was eventually arrested and executed by the Stalinist regime. He never met his grandson and even his widow was unaware of the truth of his fate until many years after Babel's death. For Novack, Babel's fate illustrated how Stalinism dealt with dissenting points of view.
"It was about showing the danger of the repression of artistic expression - the repression of political expression - the slippery slope into totalitarianism that goes on all around the world," Novack said. "Babel's work was about that vigilance. It was about looking at the humanity underneath the conflicts and saying 'this is what is really going on. And what is going on above is a lot of manipulation.'"
"Finding Babel" screens during the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival on June 4, 5 and 8.