“The Tribe” is one of the most unique cinematic experiences you will ever come across. The movie is told completely through the use of sign language, and it contains no subtitles and no narration of any kind. While this might scare off the average moviegoer, those who dare to watch something outside of the usual Hollywood fare will be in for a movie like few others.
The movie follows a shy deaf teenager who has just arrived at a new boarding school where he is trying to fit in. Soon after he arrives, he is courted by a blond-haired student who turns out to be the leader of a gang which traffics in robbery and prostitution among other illegal activities, and he works his way up the criminal ladder with much success. However, when he falls for one of his female classmates, he finds himself in a dire situation which leaves with little hope of escaping out of it alive.
“The Tribe” was written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, and I got to talk with him on the day it was slated to be screened at Cinefamily in Los Angeles, California. We sat in the theater’s outside patio which Myroslav described as the last place in California where one could smoke.
Ben Kenber: This was a fantastic and very unique movie. How did the idea for “The Tribe” come about?
Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy: In my childhood I studied in the school which is the same school we used to shoot “The Tribe” in, and across the road we had the deaf boarding school. I saw how difficult communication was between the children without the support of sign language. They can directly change by appearance and emotion because the deaf people, when they use sign language, can communicate very emotionally always. It looked like a miracle to me and I really wanted to share this feeling with audiences, and of course it wouldn’t have happened unless I could understand sign language. Many years ago in film school, I thought it was a great idea to make an homage to silent movies, and much later I had the possibilities to shoot “The Tribe.” I once made a short movie about deaf people called “Deafness.” You can find it on YouTube, it is free, and then I had the possibilities to turn it into a feature film. It was a big challenge for me. I’m not sure if it really works, but finally it more or less works. I’m so happy about that.
BK: I think was great you were able to get away with making this movie without using subtitles or voice over or any kind of narration. Mel Gibson had wanted to show “The Passion of the Christ” without subtitles but was unable to. Was it hard to sell potential financiers on a movie like this without subtitles?
MS: In Europe, financing a movie is the same as it is in the Ukraine in that it’s a different system of financing. It works different. I think all European and Ukrainian films spend the money of taxpayers. You must pitch the film in film funds, and film funds support the films so it’s completely different than like in the United States system. When I prepared to shoot “The Tribe” I was a local star in Ukraine because I had made several short films. I had received the Silver Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival. So when I presented the project to the Ukrainian film fund, of course they supported the film. This film looks completely different from any other Ukrainian film, and people were a little bit nervous about what might happen but finally it happened. Considering the subtitles, I never considered this idea to use subtitles and words. We had already sold this film to 44 countries. That’s never happened with a Ukrainian film before. All the distributors signed a contract, and the contract had an article which tells them they have an obligation to prohibit the use of subtitles and narration. I hope nobody will watch “The Tribe” with subtitles, and after my death too (laughs).
BK: What I loved about the movie was that, even if you don’t understand the words being said, you do get the gist of what is going on. The ad line for The Tribe is that love and hate need no translation, and it perfectly describes the movie. Were you ever worried that people wouldn’t understand what was going on?
MS: Actually no. When I shot the short film, I tried to not shoot what I didn’t understand because, if I can’t explain why I’m shooting this film that way, then I am on the wrong track. The audience has a cinema memory, and before I started to do this film the viewers had to understand what I was going to do or else I would lose their attention.
BK: When it came to casting “The Tribe,” you decided to cast non-professional deaf actors in the roles. Was that your plan from the start, or did you ever consider using professional actors?
MS: I never considered the option of hiring professional actors because they can’t communicate in sign language. It’s the same like in American movies with accents. They cannot master the thinking of sign language. They must communicate very organically because, for the deaf people, sign language is an extension of their body and an extension of their being. So for this reason, I needed the deaf people.
BK: There are a number of scenes that you shot in “The Tribe” which last several minutes. What was it like working with the actors on those long scenes?
MS: We had a very long shooting period which was approximately half a year. Because we have an unprofessional cast, we can sign a contract that makes it look they’re at a real job like at an office. It’s much better because you have a rented car for you and a lot of people taking care of you and you’re the big star. Of course I’m joking, but we have this process of a lot of rehearsals. We had them from 7 to 10 days for one scene. When we felt that we were ready to shoot, we ordered this heavy film equipment and started to shoot within days and kept trying to get a better take. Then we started to rehearse the next scene and moving step by step towards the end of the film.
BK: Yana Novikova, who plays Anya, in particular is asked to do a lot of hard stuff in “The Tribe,” and she has a lot of great scenes. Her abortion scene is very well directed and acted. You can see the pain in that sequence very vividly. What was it like directing that particular sequence?
MS: The abortion scene, everybody is asking about it. People were fainting during the scene in Israel, in Moscow and in New York last week. How we shot the scene was completely non-dangerous. I am proud of the scene because it is a total illusion. It’s like when you go to the circus and David Copperfield cuts the woman into two parts. It’s the same. It’s a complete illusion. We had a lot of engineering, a lot of rehearsal and we prepared the scene very well. We visited with Yana to this hospital which had a woman doctor who consulted with us. She doesn’t only do abortions; she likes to deliver babies as well. She made them tour around the hospital through the birthing wing. We had a rubber woman’s body without foots and legs, only vagina, which medical students train on. They train on this rubber body, and this rubber body would scream if you did something wrong. It was very funny. And then this doctor sits closer to me and watched the monitor and screamed much higher than me if something went wrong. For this reason, we can do it very well, but again it’s a complete illusion. The woman who performs abortions told me the story, and I felt that I had to put in this movie because I’m not a big expert in abortions before this.
BK: It’s a very touchy, taboo subject in America, and I found it very brave that you put it in the movie because a lot of filmmakers would’ve found excuses not to include an abortion scene in their movies most likely out of fear. But it is an important sequence because it shows you how hard it is for someone in the country to get an abortion.
MS: Yeah. In fact, it was very funny because when it was shown at the Dublin Film Festival, after the screening there was a beautiful Q&A session. Some woman asked me if someone abused me in my childhood. I said no but I’m very open to new experiences. An old man visited me outside of the cinema and shook my hand and said, “Thank you very much. It was a great sequence and a great scene and we have a lot of them here. It’s very brave that you showed it.”
BK: Was “The Tribe” shot on film or was it shot digitally?
MS: We shot it on an Alexa. It would’ve been impossible to shoot it on film with those very long takes because we would’ve gone bankrupt after two or three days. I always want to shoot on 35 mm film, but we don’t have the financing possibilities. But we have a copy of course on 35mm.
BK: Another shot that stood out to me was the one where we see children doing some sort of show for the parents, and once they clear out Sergey, the new kid at school, comes into the picture. It’s like the last moment of pure innocence to be found in this movie. What was your thinking when you were putting that particular scene together?
MS: In fact, it’s like a tradition. It’s the first day of school when everybody goes to school, and it’s like a celebration. It’s like a social ritual, and it still continues in the Soviet Union. In 2007 when I started my research for “The Tribe,” I witnessed this ritual at the boarding school and made a video for myself. I completely agree with you that this ritual looks completely different. It looks like something more or less cute. And then the scene rapidly changes and you see the dark side of the system.
I want to thank Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy for taking the time to talk with me. “The Tribe” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.