Exclusive: The Tribe Is the Silent Film Everyone's Talking About

Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) contemplates the school, his home, as it looms over him in the snow in Drafthouse Films’ The Tribe.
Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) and Shnyr (Alexandr Sidelnikov) threaten a younger schoolmate
Anya (Yana Novikova) and Svetka (Rosa Babiy) dress for their evening exploits
Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) fights a member of the tribe as their fellow students watch
Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) examines his new living quarters
The teacher quiets her unruly students
Anya (Yana Novikova) regards Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) with skepticism as they walk through the snow

A couple of days ago Cinefamily, the art film mecca of Los Angeles, hosted a slew of special screenings of the much-lauded festival sensation The Tribe; a Ukrainian film directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy. The film is astonishingly told completely in Ukrainian sign language; meaning, no subtitles, no voice-overs, no accompanying music, just pure and unabridged body movements.

The Tribe is a disturbing suspense film about a group of senior students with a penchant for criminality set inside a boarding school for the deaf; where love is seen as weak, and power is the name of the game. Fresh out of wrapping up the U.S. tour for the film Milk Made’s Alexandra Velasco caught up with Myroslav via Skype, a fortuitous way to communicate considering his film found most of its inspiration in older types of technology.

You just travelled across the U.S. for the film. How do you think the audience reaction changes from country to country?

It is more or less the same. In the U.S. it’s a bit different because America is a movie nation and I have an opinion that film takes a big place in the lives of Americans, even more so than literature or music. My film was screened in special cinemas, a sort of “cinematheque” with a very special audience, mostly geeks you know? I love them, because I was a geek I think.

Sometimes it feels like you are in this new church, people will come to worship the film as if going to church. American audiences are different, I mean I am in L.A. and I see the advertising of one film on the bus and another film in a billboard, I have a feeling Americans only watch films and that is it. As if it were the most important thing in America. People get really obsessed with films and kind of lose their minds. I don’t think that happens anywhere else.

Would you say the violence in your film is a representation of Ukrainian youth culture? There seems to be an obsession with money, power and organized crime…

If you take my film, there is a less percentage of violence than in like say, Tom and Jerry cartoons. But in response to your question, money is a very important thing, for gangsters and filmmakers as well. But answering seriously, Ukraine is a country that sprung from war, we hope that it will end now, but because of that there is a pyramid of corruption and power, it’s like Gomorrah or the Cosa Nostra. Because the country works like this, a lot of other organizations mirror this behavior. I was making a film about the Deaf Mafia, a very special culture in Ukraine, who have a border between us and them, they do not really trust foreigners. The wealthiest person has more options for the future and the poor ones do not. They have hierarchical community, with a boss, etc.

You decided to make the setting for this Deaf Mafia boarding school…

Yes of course, the boarding school system mirrors the Deaf Mafia’s form of organization. People spend a lot of time inside this closed society, and will always have a hierarchical system with rules and official ways of communicating.
It is a universal setting because everyone has gone to school and has their own school experience, with a first love, and first time someone has sex…it is very human.
I shot in a real school, the school were I studied, where I spent my childhood, I know every crevice and corner of this place.

The cast is built of mostly men, the story revolves around their decisions. The only women in the film are doing the men’s bidding, which leads me to ask how are the gender roles in the Ukraine?

I think Ukraine is not a feminist country. In Kiev things are a bit different, but it is still very conservative and a patriarchal society. There has been a change but we have a long way to go.

What is the purpose of using solely sign language to tell the story, no subtitles?

I had this idea a couple of years ago and the story came later after I developed the script. The concept came first, I wanted to make a universal movie, a silent movie, without subtitles, or voice-over or anything. I built the script without needing subtitles.

How was the script?

It was an absolutely regular script. Nothing different about it, it was like a TV drama.

Did the actors work with a script or was there room for improvisation in their actions? Was it all perfectly choreographed?

It was very mathematical. The camera movements were very complicated and did not leave much room for improvisation. We would build the scene then I would think how we needed to shoot it. We had from 7 to 10 days rehearsals per scene. For example, when we started rehearsing the sex scene we asked the actors to do it with clothes on and asked them to pretend that it was porn. Step by step we found how it would work.

One thing that stuck with me is the fact that there is no music throughout the film. Can you talk about why you came to that decision?

I don’t think it would be a good idea to use music in this film. In Italian Neorealism and French New Wave and Danish Dogma, it is said music will help the audience to mirror the emotions of the characters. In Dogma when the filmmaker uses music you have to show a radio or an object where music comes from.

I think that fact that there is no music is more disturbing; the soundtrack is the sounds the characters make throughout the film. Every little sound is important because it is literally the only sound. It makes one focus more.

I actually have several tapes of composers that make music with no real instruments, it’s like noise. So the whole soundtrack for The Tribe is that, the actual noises of the film. It would be pretty hard to sell the soundtrack though.

Stylistically the film is a collection of very long continuous shots and takes. Most of the action is seen from a distance. The Tribe keeps the audience at bay, while usually films try to get the audience to be inside the story. Why did you decide to do that?

This decision was a mixture of technical and aesthetic reasons. The technical reason is that when deaf people communicate you need to see the entire body, and have them both in frame. We can’t shoot over the shoulder; we have to see their entire movements. Aesthetically I have heard people and critics say that cinema is a long shot, meaning distance-wise. You can’t find this on TV because of technical reasons, but you could only find this in cinema. Which made me want to do it this way.

The change of seasons throughout the film seems to mirror the evolution of the main character, Sergey. How did his surrounding affect his change?

We always planned to have two season in the film, Autumn and Winter, but unfortunately we did not have that much snow this past winter. Although for me, I did not think the seasons had a connection with Sergey, I think it was love mostly that changed his situation. The seasons were made more to prove that time had passed. We stopped in the middle of shooting and then waited a couple of months to shoot in the snow. We had to buy a snow truck because of the lack of snow. Filming took 6 months in total.

So you mean love changed Sergey? The fact that he fell in love made him turn violent?

The film was shot in this special way, the camera always followed Sergey, so more or less we are on his side and support him. Regardless, he was in fact a part of the tribe, he did not rebel, he just tried to survive and follow the rules and make a career inside of the tribe. Love is not always something very Christmas style per se. Love was the catalyst of the situation; love changed his life so he started to change within the tribe, which led to its ultimate destruction.

Images courtesy of Drafthouse Films

The Tribe is playing now nationwide, get your tickets here!

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