Monday, October 24, 2016

FINDING BABEL: A Russian writer returns in David Novack and Andrei Malaev-Babel's doc

Here's a new documentary about Issac Babel that I suspect will appeal much more to confirmed Babel-ophiles than to folk like TrustMovies (who has heard of Babel down the decades but has never gotten around to actually reading any of his work). Consequently, watching this somewhat disorganized movie (that does eventually come together better than you might expect) proves a bit of an endurance test. Granted, Babel's personality and character may have been elusive to his readers, but the work itself -- from what we hear of it here (read well enough by actor Liev Schreiber) -- seems even more elusive, given that we get such minute snatches accompanied by a rather obvious and overdone visuals.

Director and co-writer (with Babel's grandson, Andrei Malaev-Babel) David Novack (shown at left) has other documentaries to his credit, so he does not arrive at this project as a total newcomer. Perhaps the combination of his goals, along with those of Malaev-Babel, were not so easily and/or simultaneously satisfied because the end result -- for quite awhile, at least -- seems scattered and all over the place.

First, we get a (very) brief history of the man and his life (mostly of his early disappearance and death, which was not even told to his closest relatives. Ah, those Russians: They sure know how to do "disappeared."). Then we're given smidgens of Babel's writing, along with increasing talking-head interviews, and eventually we come to realize that this documentary is not really about Babel himself, but instead concerns the journey his grandson, Andrei (shown below), is making to "discover" his grandfather.

Andrei is front-and-center throughout and this proves -- eventually -- to be enough to hold our interest, mostly because of some of the people he chooses to contact and interview. From them, we learn snippets about the famous writer, yes, but really more about Russia then and now. It is a land to avoid. Unless of course you were born then, and then you'd best simply go with the flow, from one horrendous, murderous dictator like Joseph Stalin, whose power and paranoia ended Babel's life, to the country's current Putin-ous leader, about which, toward the film's end, we see, hear and experience some modern-day corrupt power.

In between we meet a number of interesting folk, chief among these the noted French actress Marina Vlady (above, whose father was Russian-born) and the great Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, below, who as might be expected, has some succulent things to tell us. (One of this writer's poems, Lies, was given to me in calligraphy by a good friend when my daughter was born. It has hung on my wall for decades now. It is brilliant and on-the-nose, though many in my family hate it. You can read it in translation in the link above -- or here.)

Most of all, we meet and spend a bit of time with Babel's widow and Andrei's grandmother (shown below), a woman who was apparently rather cold but talented (she designed a famous Russian subway station) and who, even as this documentary was being filmed (she died during the filming), found it hard to dredge up and/or part with certain feelings.

We even pop in on rehearsals for a play that Babel wrote, and watch the performers and hear a bit of dialog. But, again, all this is so brief and offhand that it does not add much to our understanding of the writer. By the doc's finale, if Babel (shown in an archival photo below) remains pretty much the enigma he was at its beginning, Andrei's journey has at least been salutary for him and somewhat interesting for us, too. Maybe the movie will send viewers off to peruse the writer's work that still remains. (Much of Babel's unpublished stuff was destroyed by Stalin and his apparatchicks: Yes, those Russians certainly know how to "disappear" people, along with their ideas.)

Finding Babel (rather a misnomer overall, I think) -- a co-production of Canada/France/Russia/ USA/Ukraine and running 88 minutes -- opens this Friday, October 28, in New York City at the Cinema Village and at the RED Cinema Stadium 15 in Greensboro, North Carolina. The film opens December 2 in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Town Center 5, and then in Williamsburg Virginia beginning Thursday, December 8, at the Kimball Theatre. To find an update on currently scheduled screenings, click here.

Personal appearances: 
There will be Q&As 
with director David Novack 
and various guests 
at NYC's Cinema Village 
every evening during this one-week run. 
Consult the theater for exact times.

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