Exclusive Interview with Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy about ‘The Tribe’

The Tribe movie poster 2

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.

Exclusive Interview with Yana Novikova about ‘The Tribe’

The Tribe Yana photo

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.

The Tribe movie poster 1

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.