Yana Novikova is one of the stars of the critically acclaimed Ukrainian drama “The Tribe” which was written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy. It opens up on a shy young boy named Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) who has just arrived at a boarding school for the deaf, and he soon finds himself being initiated into the school’s gang which deals heavily in robbery, bribery and prostitution. But just as he becomes like any other member, he falls in love with one of his female classmates, Anna (Yana Novikova), and this triggers a series of events which in turn leads to an unnerving and unforgettable conclusion.
The cast of “The Tribe” is made up of deaf, non-professional actors, and it contains no subtitles and no narration. Yana has one of the movie’s most challenging roles as her character works after school as a prostitute in order to save up money for a visa. She dives into her role fearlessly, and it’s a role which required a lot from her in terms of nudity and raw emotions. That’s not even to mention the scene where Anna gets an abortion, a subject which remains taboo in many societies.
It was a great pleasure for me to talk with Yana back in 2014 while she was in Los Angeles, and she was joined by two sign language interpreters who helped bring her beautifully long answers to light. For a first time actress, she gives an exceptionally brave performance.
Ben Kenber: How were you cast in “The Tribe?”
Yana Novikova: During my time in Belarus, which was my hometown, I was going to college and was studying engineering, tailoring and was busy with my studies. There was an acting program nearby. I was not involved with that, but I was called by a friend of mine about the fact that in Kiev, Ukraine they had a college for the deaf. So the Ukrainian friend of mine was telling me about how they had acting classes and you could learn about dance and movement and things like that. My friend told me that there was an audition taking place in Kiev, Ukraine, and it was in two weeks. So, I had two weeks to prepare for this audition before I flew out to Kiev. To start my preparation of my rehearsal I had to tell my parents about the audition, and at first my mom said no, absolutely not. She was shocked this was my plan that I wanted to do. She said, “You don’t have friends out there in Kiev. Do you even know the city?” So mom was very concerned. “You can’t drop out of college, you know? You are working on getting your degree” at the college I was attending at Belarus. I had to strongly express to her that, even though I was involved in my studies at college, I really wanted to get into acting. My mom told me repeatedly no and I had to calm her down and convince her, so I changed my story a little bit and told my mom that I was going to be visiting friends in Kiev. So, I had to lie a little bit and I did everything secretive. But I made my preparations, I flew to Kiev and stayed with a group of deaf friends and there was a group of writers there. I didn’t know who the writer was, I didn’t know who the director was, but that director was looking at who had auditioned. He was just sort of incognito. We didn’t know that he was there and he was watching all this. I got completely involved and completely absorbed in rehearsing in preparing for the audition. They tell me that, after the audition, they were going to be selecting three people and I was like, “Three people? That’s it, out of this whole group of 10?” They said there’s just not enough scholarship money to audition for this program. There’s only enough scholarship money to accept three deaf people for this acting program. I was so upset when I wasn’t chosen. I cried and I asked them questions about why I wasn’t selected, “What were you looking for? Were you more concerned about my logistical issues about living so far away? Was that an issue; would I be able to pay for the dorm or not or things like that? What were the selections based on?” And they said, “Well you’re better off staying in Belarus and continuing on with your college and your studies.” And I said, “No, my heart is not in engineering. My heart is not in sewing and tailoring. I really want to get into acting.” So we went back and forth and back and forth, and they repeatedly told me no and that they were not selecting me. But the director, who was present, made time and came up to me and said “Well perhaps if you’re willing to fly to Kiev for the next production and try out for that audition, we have an audition for another project coming up called The Tribe.” So, I ultimately did that. I flew back to Kiev and auditioned. There were about 300 people who auditioned for the film, a long line of people all deaf. They took photographs of us as part of the audition process, they got our profiles and everything, they got information, and after the audition they told us to check the Internet to look and see if your name shows up on the list to see if you were selected. So, for about a week I kept my close eye on the casting list, and when I finally saw my name on that list and that I was chosen I was thrilled. During that process there was actually another very small film project that was going on that I was given a very, very small role in. It gave me an opportunity to do some rehearsal and do some practice in the role as a boy actually, a little rebellious boy character. So I had this real short, small role in this other project, so while I was filming and preparing for that, the director really took a hard look at me and evaluated me during that whole process, and then in September I was already chosen for my role in The Tribe. I was so happy. I completely dropped out of college and I told one of my professors and he was like, “Why are you quitting? You don’t like college? You don’t like what you’re doing?” And I said, “No. I’m actually an actress and I’m getting into acting.” And I let the professor know that I got a job and the professor was like, “Are you joking?” I said, “No I’m actually going to be acting in a film.” So, once I did that I went home and packed, and still my mom didn’t know at that time what had taken place and that I was chosen for this film. So I was in the middle of my packing process and mom came in and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well I was chosen to be an actress in a film.” My mom said, “Are you joking? You dropped out of college and you are completely shifting your plan?” I said yeah and my mom obviously got very, very upset and told me no I don’t want you to do this. So I ignored what she told me and I flew to the Ukraine and started filming The Tribe, and I actually didn’t see my parents for the whole month of September. I did stay in contact with my parents, but I didn’t see them in person. Once the production was done, I found out that it was chosen to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival and won some awards and things like that. Finally, through that process and learning about that on the Internet, my parents finally started to believe in me and that’s when the nudity issue came up and that I had to be nude in the film. I said, “Well mom and dad, that’s part of the acting work and life.” So I was so happy that finally I was actually a real actress and that I was a real thing.”
BK: Speaking of the nudity, you were asked to do some things that are not easy for any actor to do. How did you manage to get comfortable with the actors and the crew during the scenes where you had to be nude?
YN: The very first scene, I was just nude from the top up when the boy pushed the new student into our dorm room. But the script actually said that I was just going to be wearing a small little bra type thing, so that was what I was expecting at first during the filming of the first scene. And the director said, “Well actually, do you mind… Let’s time out for a second. I think the scene would do better with nude from the top up without the bra.” So I was like whoa, really? That was really overwhelming. I was upset at that point. I considered myself an actress and I wanted to get into my role, but I wasn’t expecting that. The director and his wife, they talked me down and calmed me down and said this was part of acting, “You don’t need to feel uncomfortable. Just focus on the beauty of the film in its entirety.” They gave me some different films to watch and to help get myself more into my preparation and into the role to help give me some ideas, and there is one specific French film called “Blue is the Warmest Color.” That specific film I watched and it had a significant impact on me. That really, really got me to change my point of view. The director decided to tell me more about the film itself which also went to the Cannes Film Festival and explained the process it had gone through, and I was full of questions about it. So, after seeing and learning more about that movie, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” I started to ask Myroslav, “So is it possible that ‘The Tribe’ could be that successful? Could it make it to Cannes and have the same level of success that the French film for that?” At that point in the whole process I hadn’t been finally selected for that full role, so we were just in rehearsals in that part of the process. So then when it was suggested to me that I watch that other film and started asking Myroslav those questions, it was at that point in time that my point of view completely changed. I got completely into the role during the rehearsals and everything, and I decided at that point I was fine with going with Miroslav’s direction of going full nude, and I wanted to prove to him that I could do it and that I was capable and that the film could make it to Cannes. So, it was a change in my point of view and my focus. During the scene where Sergey and I had to practice nudity, what we did to rehearse for that part was that we got into the nudity slowly so day by day by day we would remove more and more clothing as we rehearsed that scene. So we did all the rehearsal and then the actual filming took place, and finally everything just came together. Everything just melded so we filmed, and little by little by little by little the clothes came off as part of the filming process of that scene, and after we had done that scene it was no problem for me. We just completely filmed the whole thing, and then the next scene was the sex scene where we were in the 69 position. Our characters really grew. We became closer with one another and love developed. Our characters started to love one another, and love requires so many different ingredients and all these small and different elements being in tune with one another and showing that connection to the camera. Both myself and Sergey, it was our very, very first experience doing that type of thing and we were able to connect, and the rest is history.
BK: Another big scene for your character is when she has the abortion, and it’s a very brave scene in the movie. Myroslav explained to me that it was all an illusion, but your acting and the nurse there made it seem very real. How did you go about preparing for that particular scene?
YN: Thank you for that complement on that scene. When I learned that the abortion scene was part of the film, I didn’t have a problem doing it. I knew that it was part of the movie, but the challenge for me was that I didn’t have any real life experience with an abortion. So I had to do my research. I checked on the Internet, I interviewed and spoken to other women who had been through that experience and I tried to incorporate all those different elements into myself and then actually put those into that very scene. The other girl who was active in the film, she and I were in the same boat. She had never had that personal experience, so she and I and a director went to an actual medical clinic where they do those types of things, and the doctor there shared with us everything we needed to know about the abortion process. So, when the filming began the very next morning, it was a very long day. There were many, many takes and many retakes. We had to start from the beginning of the scene, walk-in and take off my clothing and go through the emotional part of it; the crying and the whole thing. And then we had to cut many, many times. We had to stop. Filming that scene went from morning until night. We went through a lot of tissues. I went through a lot of tissues that day. I was completely exhausted. I had to really try my best to conserve my energy before filming and then film the scene, be completely exhausted and then try and find that energy again and film the emotional parts again. It was exhausting and at that time I was trying to connect with the character and going through that abortion experience, and as a woman I tried to really reflect what it was really like and really tried to show it accurately. The director really worked with me to really draw out my genuine emotions to reflect that character. The goal was so that the audience could connect with that character and really connect with what she was really going through, and that scene was very, very important. It had a big impact in the movie. It actually was showing the beauty of what that person was going through. That’s how I would describe it. It was very, very hard work, and it was something I wanted to share.
BK: Were you aware from the get-go that this movie was going to be shown without subtitles or any narration, and how did you feel about that?
YN: I definitely was aware of that fact and I thought it was cool. I liked it because, for myself, when I watch a film I don’t like to look at the action and then have to look down and read. It’s work to do that to watch a film. It’s almost impossible sometimes to get everything all at once. I thought it was cooler because then the audience could really focus on the actual character and all the different elements of the character and really get into that, and so I absolutely completely supported Myroslav in his position to make the film without subtitles.
BK: It’s great because, even if you don’t know sign language, you still get the gist of what’s going on in the movie from scene to scene.
YN: Yes, absolutely. You get the gist, you get the story, you get the emotion, you see the facial expressions and all of that is obvious. It’s impossible to not understand from the beginning to the very, very end. It’s a very colorful film. It’s easy to understand. Everything is right there and presented visually for you. It’s like a person kind of going through and really experiencing that life and gives them that idea of getting into that story.
BK: In the end this is not a movie about deaf people but about people trapped in a situation that does not offer them an easy escape, and that’s what’s great about it. It’s not about one kind of people because it’s really universal in its themes.
YN: Yes, it is universal, absolutely. It’s both. It incorporates the deaf world and there was no interpreting needed actually. You understand the concepts and it’s beautiful. There’s no interpretation of language and it applies to all walks of life and the emotional parts of it as well. It applies to everyone. The emotions are universal. Everyone feels the same emotions. It’s very explicit.
I want to thank Yana very much for taking the time to talk with me. “The Tribe” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. For those movie buffs who are very interested in having a unique cinematic experience, this is a must see.