“Where the violin sings her song,
We but see a quivering string –
Thus we must accept afore long
Empty silence’s bitter sting.”
– anthem of UTOH (Ukrayinske Tovarystvo Hlukhykh, of Deaf of Ukraine), as translated by Adrian Bryttan
Ever turn over a moss-encrusted log in the woods? Ever peer at the hidden life underneath, teeming with varied skittering tiny beings, scrambling for their existence? Ever scrutinize this silent drama of ruthless predators, those fighting to escape… and the scavengers? Director Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s decorated 2014 film “The Tribe” presents a similar vision: the startling and savage ecosystem of a boarding school for deaf children in Ukraine.
The World of “The Tribe”
Viewing “The Tribe” draws us into an alternate dimension starting with the first scene, where the school hierarchy greet their classes in sign language while students cheer like students everywhere – only here it is in silence with a sea of waving arms. We perceive the intervals between periods punctuated not with a bell, but flashing lights. Yet time and again, we also note situations and emotions all can easily recognize – teachers dealing with cheeky pupils, cafeteria confrontations, furtive sex, schoolyard fights, bullies, gangs and shakedowns. These students seem to have little time for any reflection, or any deeper friendships or tenderness, only the will to power in a descent into savagery. The law of claw and fang.
Very quickly, the film turns terrifying. Institutional prostitution, robberies, assaults and other crimes lead ever deeper into the labyrinth of hopelessness and finally madness and disaster, echoing Stanley Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” and William Golding’s dystopian novel “Lord of the Flies” about a degraded society of British boys stuck on an uninhabited island and headed for irreversible oblivion.
Much of the power of Mr Slaboshpytskiy’s film is in the details. Grafitti-covered walls with peeling paint frame every interior shot. The cold efficiency of the two teenaged girls changing into their hooker dresses while jostling inside the dingy van is timed to the second for their arrival at the truck pitstops where clients await. Tender-aged scavengers are depicted as experienced Artful Dodgers, whether ransacking an apartment, or shaking a new student down to his last penny. Nothing is wasted by the “tribe”.
There is a scene where two administrators (also mute) who arranged for an Italian visa for two young girl students, ceremoniously trot out the vodka bottle – just like some real life administrators from that part of the world. As we recognize more and more tableaus that ring true, we begin to realize the full tragedy of what we are viewing – this is a film about a society that has regressed to a primitive state, it is about the desperation of people caught in a dysfunctional hell-hole. Who has not been disturbed by the crumbling buildings, the disinterested apparatchiks and other weasels, the quiet desperation of the long waiting lines, and the skinhead punks in Ukraine? – only this time they just happen to all be deaf… Our emotional response is undeniable. And with this, the director has achieved his goal.
“It is not about deafness, but human beings”
I had an opportunity to interview the director and his lead actress following their tour of the Ukrainian Museum in New York. Author/ director Miroslav Slaboshpitskiy told me he wanted people to understand this is “not about deafness; it’s about human beings.” Not surprisingly, two of his admired directors are Lars von Trier and Todd Browning of “Freaks” cult fame. (“Freaks” was a pre-Hollywood Code ‘shocker’ about the the physically deformed ‘freaks’ in a traveling circus who turn out to be more humane than ‘normal’ people.) He also mentioned Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Larry Clark and Orson Welles on his director’s list. Mr. Slaboshpytskiy also pointed out deaf actress Marlee Maitlin’s Leading Actress Oscar-winning performance in “Children of a Lesser God”.
In reply to a question whether this film reflects reality, lead actress Yana Novikova said: “I think every school has problems. It won’t be any different just because students have hearing or are deaf.”
How did the director come up with the concept of a deaf society for his screenplay, with no spoken words, no subtitles – only sign language gestures? Mr. Slaboshpytskiy related how he was intrigued with this world of silence and its residents ever since his student days, when he observed a special school for the deaf in his Kyiv neighborhood.
Production and filming
Mr. Slaboshpytskiy devoted six months to audition deaf actors drawn mostly from Ukraine, but also Belarus and Russia. Filming took another six long months, some of that time in a harsh winter and the beginnings of Maidan. The director worked through interpreters who not only parlayed his instructions but also ensured the actors stayed on script. For all the actors taking part in “The Tribe”, he said this was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” He related how his doll faced leading lady Yana Novikova comes from a poor family in Belarus, but has now been “living a Cinderella story, traveling world wide to festivals, giving interviews, and now corresponds with many international movie stars she has met along the way.”
The 21 year old Belarusian Yana Novikova communicates by signing in Russian to a deaf interpreter, who then must sign to another interpreter to convert into English. She recalled: “Sometimes during filming we would have to stop because of the snow, and we’d have to wait for the weather to allow us to film. That affected the schedule. They gave us a place to stay so we had a place to relax after long days or nights of shooting. But we were working. If one person had a problem, we all stuck together. We had the same vision to have the best film possible, so we worked together to achieve that. We didn’t become best friends, but we were all working together toward the same goal. ”
When I asked Ms. Novikova how the young actors reacted to the violent scenes in the film, she replied: “We knew it would have some violence… but when we read through sections of the script, we really didn’t know what would happen next, and there were a lot of different perspectives and opinions.”
The deaf in Ukrainian society
As an auteur, Mr. Slaboshpitskiy stated he created his screenplay because he “felt it that way, nothing else”. He didn’t intend to “to elicit any reaction from the audience” nor to raise awareness about the plight of the disabled (deaf) in society. Yet an unsettling film like “The Tribe” cannot help but raise awareness and pose even larger questions about young people in their society.
I questioned him about the present day outlook for the deaf throughout the land. Mr. Slaboshpytskiy mentioned the nation-wide organization “Deaf of Ukraine” or UTOH (Ukrayinske Tovarystvo Hlukhykh), founded in 1933 to safeguard their legal rights and provide assistance in professional, cultural and social spheres. UTOH oversees such activities as production of clothing, textiles and other goods by the deaf and even sponsors beauty/ culture contests for the young: Miss and Mister UTOH, Miss Elegance, Miss Grace, Mister Artistry, Miss Originality, Mister Intellect and others. “Rayduha” (Rainbow) is an acclaimed theater for the deaf in Kyiv that also tours internationally. One of their best known recent productions is “Thumbelina”, an exuberant presentation filled with colorful dances, clowns, illusion and pantomime, all performed by the deaf.
Actress Yana Novikova commented: “I think “The Tribe” will help hearing people understand how we depend on facial expressions. It brings awareness to the hearing community that they too can understand what the emotions of deaf people are, by looking at their expressions. You don’t have to hear the words to understand what they’re feeling.” Her sister is half deaf herself and was very proud of Yana when she first saw the film, saying “Wow, you’re a professional actress. It looked like you had more experience acting even though it was only your first film.” Yana’s parents have not seen the film yet but are aware she plays a prostitute and there are sex scenes. When Yana received the award at Cannes, it justified her decision. She said: “It’s work…it’s art, it’s a film. I’m 19 years old, I’m an adult, I can make that decision.”
Ukrainian support for cinema
A Garmata Film Production, “The Tribe” received financial support from the Hubert Bals Fund (Netherlands), the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation and the Ukrainian State Film Agency. Its production budget was one million dollars.
When I asked about financing for Ukrainian cinema, Mr. Slaboshpytskiy contrasted the list of Forbes billionaires in Russia and in Ukraine. In Russia, Vladimir Yevtushenkov gives ten million dollars annually to their film industry, while aluminum king Oleg Deripaska and fellow magnate Alexander Mamut are both major donors to the biggest Russian film companies and media outlets they control. By contrast, there are no comparable supporters of cinema on the Ukrainian Forbes list. According to Mr. Slaboshpytskiy, this is because at present, “Ukrainian individuals are just not interested enough to cultivate the necessary connections and spend money in that area of the arts.”
“The Tribe” has met with unprecedented international critical acclaim; it collected the most awards in the history of Ukrainian cinema, including prizes at Film Festivals in London, Milan, Warsaw, Denver and it swept the awards at Cannes including the Critics Week Grand Prize. A favorite in the local Ukrainian Oscar nomination race for 2014, “The Tribe” lost to Oles Sanin’s “The Guide”, though not without some controversy.
Mr. Slaboshpytskiy revealed that shooting for his next film “Luxembourg” will begin December 15, 2015. It will be a French, German, Norwegian, Ukrainian co-production about the current contamination zone around Chornobil, and similarly to “The Tribe” – it will be a work of fiction, not a documentary. The title refers to the 1,000 square mile devastated “exclusion zone” surrounding Chornobil – exactly the same area as the entire state of Luxembourg.
“The Tribe” is now playing from June 17 through June 30 at the Film Forum, 209 W. Houston Street, New York (212) 727-8110.
[This article first appeared as The Making of “The Tribe” in The Ukrainian Weekly, No. 26-27, June 28-July 5, 2015]