“Some woman asked me did someone ever abuse me or rape me, so… yeah. It was very funny.” Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy is a man with an interesting sense of humour. To make a feature debut like The Tribe, he’d have to be.
No matter where it’s played, The Tribe’s reputation precedes it. Told entirely in sign language, and without subtitles, this tale of a group of deaf Ukrainian teenagers operating a crime syndicate has been acclaimed for its confidence and its unique treatment of very stark material. We meet Slaboshpytskiy in Dublin, having presented the film to an audience the night before at the Jameson Founded in 2003, the Dublin International Film Festival sets the agenda of the year with its programme of outstanding Irish and international film.. It was at the resulting Q&A session that the question of his experience with abuse cropped up. “I think Ireland is the first place with such nice questions!”, he laughs. The 40-year-old director is a very affable chap, and quietly charming. Bearded and dressed in a zip-up hoodie and jeans when we meet, the unassuming exterior belies a man possessed of great skill and intellect. The Tribe is unlike any feature seen before, but Slaboshpytskiy makes it about more than the lack of spoken language. An interpreter joins us, but her skills are required only sparingly. Slaboshpytskiy knows what he wants to say.
When we ask him about the reaction to the film thus far, he readily rattles off a list of festivals where it has played, the enthusiasm betraying a man who can scarcely believe what he’s achieved. “I’ve been presenting this film to different audiences in different countries, starting in Cannes last May, and San Sebastian, L.A., Sundance, Park City, Karlovy Vary, Locarno, Milan, Paris, and via Skype with Russia. In general, audiences really like the film.” He seems to appreciate the curveball thrown at him at the Dubin screening. “Unfortunately, I haven’t had quite the same questions from other countries. Always accepting, people are always very nice, shaking hands, but they ask the same two questions: how did you shoot the last sequence, and how you managed to direct the deaf actors. I think sometimes I just have better places, but people accept the film, especially at London and L.A. I have no problems; nobody wants to kill me so far!”
The question of how one directs the deaf is inevitable, not least because the deaf are relatively lacking in representation onscreen. Indeed, the fact the cast of The Tribe are deaf informs the film’s style, but Slaboshpytskiy admits he’s not necessarily any more attuned to a deaf cast’s needs than anyone else. “I was studying in the same school where we shot The Tribe, and on the opposite side of the road we had a school for deaf people. I saw the people and how they communicate with each other. Sometimes we’d have a battle with them, and sometimes we’d communicate with them. I think that was all my experience with deaf people. I have no deaf people in my family. I’ve never been in love with a deaf girl. There were no reasons”.
“My real relationship with the deaf community was struck when I shot Deafness.” Slaboshpytskiy’s 2011 short served as a dry run for The Tribe, allowing him to demonstrate what the full film would look like. “I had the concept of the full-length feature film for a long time, probably over twenty years,” he explains, ”but I had no financial possibilities of shooting the full-length feature. I had the possibility of shooting a short film when I met the people from the Ukrainian Society for the Deaf. The short premiered at Berlinale, and screened at a number of festivals.” The film was something of a breakthrough for its director and the deaf community onscreen. “After the Berlin screening that February, we screened it for the Deaf Culture Society in March. They made it a celebration! They made concerts, sang songs in sign language, invited a lot of TV and press. It was then I started to be in touch with the deaf community in Ukraine. I would meet a lot of people from this community, from deaf boarding schools. Later, it really helped me to work with this community and work on The Tribe.”
For all intents and purposes, the film is necessarily silent. The lack of dialogue is but a part of its disorientating atmosphere, with only occasional sound design creeping to make its mark in a number of genuinely disturbing scenes. It’s a world away from the silent masters of yore, but was Slaboshpytskiy influenced by them? “If you speak about any one of them, it would probably be Buster Keaton, of course. Also Harold Lloyd, Charles Chaplin. But to be clear, of course it’s an homage to silent movies, but I didn’t want to make an homage to the form of the silent movie, but I hoped to the spirit of the silent movie. Like, I mean a very young and very fresh universal art form which audiences can understand from ocean to ocean.”
Try as Slaboshpytskiy might, even a film as daring as The Tribe will be analysed for hints of metaphor and commentary. “If you shoot a film about a boarding school or in a prison, the audience always accepts it like a metaphor for society. Concerning Ukraine, when I studied in film school, I studied film history and read about German Expressionism, and those are people who feel the coming fascism and dark times, and so for this reason they feel a need to express it in film. I’m always doubting it, thinking, “What is this stupid thing? These films, they just tell stories!”. But later, after coming up with The Tribe, I’m thinking I’m wrong about that, because no-one thinks “I feel something happening and I must express it!”
So, is The Tribe a commentary on Ukraine, or its hostilities with Russia? Slaboshpytskiy says no. “I finished the script of The Tribe in 2011. Then, no-one’s thinking about Maidan; no-one’s thinking about war with Russia. Nobody can imagine it. I live in Kiev, I breathe the same air as other people who will sit in the protest camp in the central square in a few years. And I think I felt something in the air, but I didn’t shoot a metaphor. I just tried to tell a story.”
That’s not to say The Tribe doesn’t have a basis in reality. “I talked about the deaf mafia at the Q&A session,” explains Slaboshpytskiy. “It’s an issue, especially in the former Soviet Union. I know that, a few years ago, Interpol arrested former Soviet citizens which produced an illegal network of deaf people!” Slaboshpytskiy is so keen to tell all, he gives the translator a spiel. “The leader’s an Israeli citizen nicknamed ‘Nose’, and he’s been put into jail for organising an illegal network of deaf beggars. I can’t tell a lot about the deaf mafia in film; I can tell about the lowest level, which is a school. But I’m thinking about it, and I want to make a film about it. The Ukrainian state was modelled on the basis of criminal groupings, and a lot of people perceived it as mafia. It’s one of the reasons why there was a revolution.” The last mention of mafia is uttered by the interpreter in a cautious whisper. Is she afraid they’re listening in?
If Slaboshpytskiy is venturing into new territory with The Tribe, he’s taking no prisoners. The long takes alone are a riveting way to keep the audience on its toes, though this wasn’t necessarily part of the plan. “We found the style of shooting on the set,” admits Slaboshpytskiy. “I would be happy to tell you that when I finished the script I knew everything because I’m a genius and I was sure of what I do. But it’s completely untrue.”
The film makes no concessions to taste or expectations. Scenes of sexuality and violence continue well beyond the point a cut might normally interject. So, what motivated the way Slaboshpytskiy depicts the lives these deaf mobsters lead? “We had a number of reasons,” he explains. “The first reason: when deaf people communicate with each other, you couldn’t shoot over their shoulders. You must always see the person.” This practicality is compounded by realist, unflashy cinematography and design. “My DoP (Valentyn Vasyanovych) is a fine documentary director, and we made a decision to try this style.”
“Finally, we got the calculation of the different elements. We have a long sequence. We have in-frame editing. We don’t change the point of view. The camera is your eyes. The audience is one of the Tribe. You are personally taking part in the robbery, you’re always involved.” If we are made complicit in the crimes committed, then the consequences must also be accentuated. “It’s a film without verbal language, so it must involve you deeper and deeper. So, for this reason, I completely agree that violent scenes are more effective.” That effectiveness is summed up in an anecdote Slaboshpytskiy tells when seeking support for The Tribe. “When I had just finished the film, I sent a cut to a friend of mine, a film critic who lives in Paris. I asked for his opinion and his support, and he said a very strange sentence: ‘During the first hour, you were getting us more and more involved, closer and closer, and at the end you just cut our eyes with a blade.’ ” With praise like that (and a reference to Un Chien Andalou to boot), you know you’re on to a winner.
The Tribe is in cinemas from 15th May. Read Scannain‘s review here.