Culture

sex, violence and sign language in myroslav slaboshpytskiy's debut feature

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy says he only really knows swear words in sign language but from the looks of it, his debut film uses all of them.

Colin Crummy

In The Tribe you can't absolutely be sure what is being said, that is unless you're completely au fait with Ukrainian sign language. The film, about a gang of teenagers who ruthlessly rule the roost at a deaf school, is told entirely through sign without subtitles or voiceovers or even music to give you a sense of what is going on. You're left to interpret from the characters' interactions with each other, their body language and facial expressions. But you get the distinct impression that's what been said isn't particularly nice or sweet or wholesome.

That's because The Tribe follows school newcomer Sergey, played by Grigory Fesenko, who in order to survive joins a gang whose extra curricular activities include muggings, beatings and pimping the two girl members out to truckers every evening. Things turn complicated when Sergey falls for one of the girls, Anna, played by Yana Novikova and the narrative unfurls like an exquisitely violent, raw and sexual contemporary dance. The cast are all non professional, street cast deaf actors; the use of sign packs a powerfully expressive punch and the director's eye moves from room to room, scene to scene as if coming across a new puzzle for the viewer to unpick.

The film was much raved about at last year's Cannes and has been evolving in the 40 year old Ukrainian writer director Slaboshpytskiy's mind for some time. Here he tells i-D, with some help from a translator, how the idea unfolded.

What drew you to using sign language?
I felt deaf people have reached a certain different level of communication. They express emotions, they express feelings. It makes it a superior development in communications for human beings. But perhaps its not like that because I don't understand sign language but I was completely impressed and mystified by this and I felt I had to share my impression.

Is there a connection between that level of expressiveness and the decision to make a teenage film, a time when all our senses are at their most heightened?
I didn't think about it when I was creating the film but that's right, it's a film about the teenage years when a person's expression of their feelings can be more powerful than usual. I was paying homage to the silent movie too; when it was developing it was a bit young and fresh and mischievous too - like young people. That's another connection.

The film is inspired by your own school experiences. I take it you didn't enjoy school?
I hated it. In later years, I started liking school when we started smoking, drinking beers and going out with girls. I was exactly the same age as the characters in the film but generally I preferred to spend time in the cinema.

Why did you decide to cast deaf, non-professionals in the roles?
From the start of the idea, 20 years ago, I always knew I would work with deaf people - native speakers of the sign language. We were not thinking of casting specific people in the audition; if someone walks in and grabs us straight away we started to think about how we can use them.

What grabbed you about the two leads Sergey and Yana?
Grigory's friend, a photographer, sent us his photograph. We saw when he came to audition that he's a street lad, he knows how to fight, he plays football, he has a tattoo on his arm, he does parkour. You can imagine, a guy walks in who [looks like someone who] can do you easily on a narrow street. But during the casting, he was very nervous, his hands were shaking, he was sweating. He nearly failed the audition because of this. So this tough guy nearly crushes during the casting and that got us thinking. I asked him back and gradually we realised he was who we were looking for. Yana came to the Ukraine to audition for this theatre for deaf people. In my original version, Yana's character looked more like a slut. We went to look at another girl [at the theatre] who was very sexy. I was present at the audition and we filmed it to take it back to have a look. I realised I wasn't looking at the sexy girl but at Yana. So I asked the cameraman to film Yana. She came for casting two weeks later and I was shocked at her ability; if I said die she would die. We were rehearsing the scene where Sergei is trying to prevent Anna leaving and Yana was so into the character, saying farewell forever and she played it so well that goosebumps were coming out on her on screen.

What did the script look like? Did you write dialogue?
It was quite standard looking script. It looked so typically ordinary that when we were in marketing meetings trying to attract funds, people would look at the script and say we don't see anything special in it. It looked like any other script.

It feels like watching a set of puzzles you have to unravel as the camera travels from room to room, scene to scene. Is that something you thought about?
It's funny. I was trying to create a coming of age drama. The film is made in sign language and it was very important to me that the audience could follow the story and when I was working on the script I would make sure that something in the next-but-one scene would explain something from the previous scene. Strangely enough, some people think of the film as a thriller that requires special attention in watching.

Can you sign?
No. I know a few words in sign language and most of them are swear words. I collect these things. I know how to swear in Serbian, Armenian and English.

The Tribe is in cinemas Friday 15th May

Credits


Text Colin Crummy