Set in a boarding school for deaf teens, there is no spoken dialogue in The Tribe, the latest from Ukrainian filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, but it still makes a bold statement
“Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothing yet!” When Al Jolson startled cinemagoers with that epochal line in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, he didn’t know how prophetic his words would be. In the decades that have elapsed since sound entered the movies, the chatter has been near-constant. Whether through spoken dialogue or voiceover, subtitled or dubbed, the sound of people talking has become such an integral part of the cinema experience that its occasional absence can have a bracing effect. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe is a film in which we don’t hear a single word uttered, and yet its characters never stop communicating with each other. The entire film is populated by deaf actors whose lingua franca is Ukrainian sign language and none of what they say is translated for viewers, so unless you’re part of the small subset of people who can understand their gestures, you’ll need to find other means to decipher this story.
The result is a unique and surprisingly riveting experience. During a screening at last year’s London Film Festival, a festival riddled by bad audience behaviour (people chatting, texting, eating their bodyweight in popcorn), those in attendance were transfixed, focusing intently on gestures and body language; the things we take for granted in conventional films suddenly becoming the key to our comprehension. “I’m very glad to hear that!” Slaboshpytskiy exclaims when he hears of this festival experience; and this experience is far from a unique one. “The shooting of the film was divided between autumn and winter, and we had a little gap between these two seasons,” he recalls. “The last scene that was filmed in autumn ends when the guys are drinking in an amusement park, and when we had a break I watched about 40-45 minutes of the footage we had shot. It’s strange, because even though I wrote the script and I was on set every day as the director, I still felt that the movie somehow gripped me and surprised me! The majority of audiences have had the same gripping reaction to it so I think we have succeeded in something.”
So what is the secret of The Tribe’s success? Slaboshpytskiy had dreamed of making some kind of modern silent movie for 20 years, and he was determined to do so as a completely contemporary work, without the 1920s-style affectation of films like The Artist or Blancanieves. Inspired by years spent observing children at a school for the deaf that was situated near his own school, the director eventually developed his ideas into a short film called Deafness, which acted as a vital trial run. “I decided to test this storytelling style to see how it works in practice, because it's one thing for an idea to work in your head and it's another thing for that idea to work in reality,” says Slaboshpytskiy. “In addition, while I was making Deafness I got to know many members of that community in Ukraine, and that was a very significant help when the time came to make this movie."
While The Tribe's entire cast is deaf, it's important to note that this is not a film about being deaf. It is a coming-of-age tale, a love story, a tragedy and portrait of gang culture, and while the characters’ lack of hearing adds dramatic weight to a number of scenes, this essentially remains an archetypal tale that the director could have made using actors from any background. “It's kind of an obvious story,” Slaboshpytskiy admits, “but I am slightly limited in telling the story because there is no verbal dialogue, and to make sure the audience can understand it and relate to it we had to use some conventional episodes. For example, when a new person joins a school there will definitely be some kind of initiation situation, and people already know that. The ordinary viewer has a cinematographic memory because they have seen lots of movies, and it helps them follow the story.”
There are surely a couple of other reasons why viewers are getting drawn so completely into this story, notably Slaboshpytskiy's brilliant filmmaking craft, including a series of superbly orchestrated long takes and potent, skilfully heightened sound design, and the astonishing performances that he draws from his inexperienced ensemble. “That was a lot of fun, actually,” the director says with a smile when asked how he prepared his young actors for some arduous and challenging sequences. “We put everyone on a monthly payroll and we arranged for them to stay in flats, even the ones who lived in Kiev, because we wanted to take them out of their usual environment and circumstances,” he explains. “Aside from the fact that I had to use an interpreter, there is really no difference between deaf actors and non-deaf actors. We would rehearse scenes for six days and when we were satisfied we would shoot it on the seventh day. It was actually a lot of fun for them because you don't have to do anything strenuous except for [the] running and fighting [scenes]. They had their own flat, they were being driven around by car, there are always assistants around and best of all nobody was nagging them for smoking, so for them it was just a very awesome experience.”
“It's one thing for an idea to work in your head and it's another thing for that idea to work in reality” – Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
Slaboshpytskiy did face some obstacles when preparing the cast for some of The Tribe's more provocative content, however. When his leading female actor Yana Novikova was hesitant to take part in an explicit sex scene with co-star Grigoriy Fesenko, he turned to cinema for inspiration, with the performance of Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Colour emboldening the young actress and filling her head with dreams of Cannes. Those dreams were realised last year when she accompanied Slaboshpytskiy to the festival and saw him collect the Grand Prize in Critics' Week.
Just before our interview ends, Slaboshpytskiy recalls a fond memory from his time promoting the film. “After the film premiere in Russia I had a Skype conference with the audience and one deaf woman told me through an interpreter that she had always watched movies with an audience that was able to hear, and through emotions and body language she could kind of guess what takes place, but this time she was the only person in the audience who fully understood what was going on!” he says with a laugh. “She was very grateful for this experience and that meant a lot to me.”
Slaboshpytskiy talks with a somewhat bemused air when recounting these stories, as The Tribe's ability to reach audiences around the world continues to take him by surprise. But it's clear that he is rightfully proud of what he has achieved and that he particularly cherishes the bond that formed between him and his cast during the making of the film. “You know, compared to the regular industrial standards of filmmaking, the way we made this movie was an absolute mess,” he says, “but in all those long months of rehearsals and shooting, in a way we became a kind of tribe ourselves.”
The Tribe is released 15 May by Metrodome