Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Looking for Babel

“No state, no government has any right to exterminate people,” says American film director David NOVACK
24 November, 2015 - 11:02

One of the spectacular events of the 45th Kyiv International Film Festival “Molodist” was the screening of David Novack’s documentary Finding Babel. The film tells about a Soviet writer who was in the avant-garde of the literature life of that time, when an important role was played by Odesa. Using one of his conversations with the writer’s widow Antonina Pirozhkova as the groundwork, a talented Soviet architect, the grandson of Isaac Babel, American actor and director Andrei Malaev-Babel, is looking for the lost manuscripts in the film. The American grandson meets many admirers of Babel’s work in the background of present-day reality. He fails to unravel all sad mysteries, but the belief that no state or government has any right to exterminate people, is the main theme of the picture.

The Day raises this and other questions in the interview with the director of the film David NOVACK.

David, why did you decide to make a film about Babel?

“Everything started with my recording of an interview with Antonina Pirozhkova, the writer’s widow, who was 92 at that time. I recorded it, so to say, for long perspective. After her death, Andrei decided to go to Ukraine to investigate into the history of his grandfather, so I joined him. It seems to me that the story of Babel’s life and death is very important. It is important for Ukraine, Russia, Syria, and all countries with totalitarian rule. That was not just my initiative, there were more important spiritual reasons.”

Your film was made in the background of the terrible events that Ukraine has been experiencing. Some people, for example, poet Yevtushenko, who has taken a nasty stand towards Ukraine, are shown in the film. There is no doubt that the Ukrainian audience has a negative attitude to these people. What is your opinion on the events in our country? Whose initiative it was, Babel’s grandson’s or yours, to pick the personalities for the film?

“Andrei was the one who was involved in all meetings and interviews. He chose the people. In his time he studied at Moscow School of Performing Arts, and his grandmother Pirozhkova knew all the intellectuals of that time. Believe me, when I saw these videos and interviews for the first time, I had a different attitude to them than now.”

The entire world today knows that in our neighboring country what happened to writer Isaac Babel is gradually becoming a norm. I lack a message to our present day.

“I tried to make a film which in terms of stylistics would meet the topic. I mean it is a documentary with a share of fiction, the way Babel did in his creative work. I think the main message has been brought to the audience, and it is evident in this film without my commentaries. That is why I have purposefully avoided commenting on this. Therefore, I was very touched and excited when I was lucky to see everything anew together with the audience. But maybe not everyone can absorb this message in such a way. Extraordinary talented personalities who dared have their own opinion and beliefs, which differed from the main line of the government, were destroyed and they disappear without a trace.”

Your film is very poetic, and the parts where the leitmotif is the author’s message, reconstructions, are incredibly lyrical. And the documentary part is too laconic. Why? Haven’t Russia and Ukraine provided enough materials, or there were no materials in the archives?

“The materials about Isaac Babel were more than enough, we even had this interview. I had a lot of information about his student years, but I refused from focusing too much on the details and, actually, his biography. I have seen a Danish documentary, which was very didactic and focused mainly on his biography. I didn’t want to make a film in this style. I thought it would be inappropriate.”

Although currently the audience watches documentaries with pleasure, it is very hard to find any in our country, because TV channels don’t want to show them, saying it’s not an appropriate format, and they are not screened in cinemas either. Sometimes enthusiasts, directors of movie theaters can show them once. What is the situation with this in the US? On the whole, how broadly will this film be screened? Or is this a merely festival film?

“The future is unknown. At first we are screening the film in Ukraine, later – in Tallinn, and then – in Moscow.”

Will these be festival screenings?

“Yes. I’m planning to screen this film in the US for Russian Diaspora which is numerous in North America. Many people, not only my friends, are waiting for the release of the film. In the US and Canada such films are rarely screened in cinemas, but Netflix has had a positive influence on this situation. I am going to show this film in America through Netflix.”

We know clearly what usually makes the budget of a film. Yours is almost a feature film, with many countries involved, so the budget must be big. What producing company sponsored you? Are they waiting for a pay back?

“Our film was shot exclusively for the money we received from donors. Those were people who simply know my work, and it is interesting for them to watch a film about Babel. There was also a Ukrainian-Jewish Society, they also helped us a lot. The members of the society are Ukrainians and Jews, and its goal is to stand up for justice in the history of Jews in Ukraine, and, actually, the Ukrainian-Jewish relationships. This is the angle to view the flow of historical events. Namely they provided one-third of our funding. Andrei is satisfied with the work. He thinks he managed to cover the core of the topic, the content of Babel’s work, his main ideas, most important subjects and problems he broached, and what effect it has on present day reality.”

When he accomplished this journey with you, working on the picture, did he manage to answer the very important questions he wanted to find answers to?

“I think with this film we answered many questions, but, at the same time, the greatest question which remains unanswered is the whereabouts of the lost manuscripts. When we were shooting the film in Moscow and interviewed all those people, we hoped to find them. Another big question was why Babel returned to Moscow rather than staying in Paris? Andrei found an answer to this question. But it is not a definite answer, there are several versions. Therefore, probably everything still remains a mystery for him to some extent. There still are things to work on.”