The Silent Treatment: Director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky on The Tribe
The word “bravura” gets thrown around all too often in the realm of ambitious filmmaking (perhaps in arts criticism in general?), but there is seemingly no other word to describe the colossal craft on display in Ukrainian helmer Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s Cannes 2014-premiering debut feature, The Tribe. The film’s narrative — which hews somewhat to the genre obligations of a Western, as Slaboshpitsky points out — concerns a young man, Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), who is a newcomer at a deaf boarding school in Ukraine. No sooner has Sergey arrived than he realizes that the school is run by its administration in name only: in actuality, the fate of its students is left mostly up to the discretion of a ruthless gang that has formed within the school walls. One of the gang’s rackets is prostitution, and after he is initiated into the “deaf mafia,” Sergey winds up falling — naturally — for one of the young women who is being pimped out (Yana Novikova). Suffice it to say that complications ensue.
Key to the film’s success are not one but two significant directorial choices: seemingly every scene is shot in one long take, by a perpetually gliding Steadicam; and, even more brazenly, Slaboshpitsky chooses not to subtitle the film’s sign language. The entirety of the film consists of a lot of dialogue between its characters, but viewers uninitiated in sign language will have to rely on their readings of body language and facial cues to understand what is happening. Of course, it’s an incredibly clever way of formally reinserting the film’s (non-deaf) viewers into the position of the deaf — forced to try to comprehend a mode of communication they lack the skills to adequately parse. Then again, perhaps not, as the viewer moves through The Tribe, what one may find is that visual cues play a far, far greater role in human communication than anything that is conveyed via speech, signed or otherwise.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Slaboshpitsky over Skype recently to discuss the film, which is released this spring by Drafthouse Films.
Obviously, the concept for your film is rather exceptional. How did it come to you? It’s a long story, but I’ll try to be short. When you study in film school in Ukraine, the first task is to shoot two five-minute short films. One must be completely silent. I think I began thinking about this concept when I was in film school. When I was studying at the school, on the opposite side there was a deaf boarding school. I saw the students from their school; I saw how they communicated with each other. Sometimes I would see them fighting. So finally I thought, it could be great to make a modern silent movie about this.
Of course, silent films have intertitles, often, to help orient the audience. With your film we could argue that the audience — if they don’t speak sign language — is even more disoriented, since the sign language is not subtitled. It’s purely visual. Were you afraid at all that the audience might not fully comprehend the narrative? Or were you confident that body language, on its own, was strong enough to convey the narrative? I was thinking, of course, that if the audience didn’t understand the story, nobody would watch the film. Probably the film would be released at some festivals, but we wouldn’t have this huge success. But of course, when people communicate, we often lie with our words. For example, in drama school, a teacher might say to a student, “Tell me that you love me, but say it like what you really mean is that you hate me.” So emotions and feelings come first. When we got off the spoken word, the story started to reflect how people communicate between each other very directly. I think that’s the main reason why people understood the story.
Concerning silent movies and the subtitles, you’re completely right. But, you can completely understand Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd without the intertitles. I don’t think you would lose much.
The actors — and I realize I don’t know if they’re actually deaf or not — have an exaggerated physicality that reminded me of silent film stars. Yeah, everybody in the film is deaf. We looked for deaf actors in a number of different cities and countries. Of course, deaf people have different languages. American sign language is completely different from the Ukrainian sign language. I never considered using actors who weren’t deaf because I needed a native speaker. It’s too difficult to study this language, and I needed the actors to not be thinking about which signs to make; I needed them to be completely themselves, focusing on feelings and emotions. Of course, deaf people are like anyone else: some of them are real boring; some of them are real emotional. So we saw 300 people in casting. I was looking for something like charisma. I would ask them to communicate something — to explain how they love me, how they hate me, if they can cry. Any stupid thing. And then, if I was interested, we would take them from the casting and shoot a rehearsal with them. Then we decided. It was all very physical.
Because you had to rely so much on body language and action and physicality to convey the story, did you feel in some way like you were getting closer to the essence of cinema? Were you able to tap into something central to the art form’s power? When I was just starting to make the film, it felt like a very interesting formal experiment. Now, when I watch it sometimes, I start to feel myself — I don’t know — like I’m in a hypnotic trance, something like that, because the film completely takes you in. You know the film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu? I was watching it for the first time recently, in Romanian with Estonian subtitles. I completely didn’t know those languages. But I was watching it, a film with lots of dialogue, of course, and I understood none of the words, but I completely accepted the film. It makes me think of The Passion of the Christ. It’s in Aramaic, and I couldn’t understand the language. Unfortunately, they had subtitles, but the English subtitles are a bit complicated for me to comprehend. But I went completely inside the film. When you can’t understand the words, you have to watch the film more carefully. I think all of these elements will probably make my film feel something like a thriller, but of course, my film is not a thriller. But, a lot of people have told me that they felt like the images brought them deep inside the film.
A film professor once told me that you should be able to watch a film with the sound off and understand everything that happens in the story. Do you agree with that? Is it important for the cinema to be told purely through images? I think, you know, it’s a bit banal, many rules like that which professors tell you. But in Europe, for example, the major works of cinema will be co-productions with TV deals, so if your film will be distributed on TV, you have a number of formal obligations. You know, the cinema has been reinvented a number of times. In its first era, we had silent films. Then, after, sound came in and completely changed everything, and then they completely changed with color. Now we’re going through the digital era and everything is changing once again. We didn’t shoot The Tribe on 35mm. Every era has another philosophy, another way of filmmaking and another way of the audience coming to accept what a movie is. Of course, I do believe that the cinema is a highly visual art. And I wanted to emphasize the visuals because some films that are made for TV are films you can experience primarily just by hearing — all you have to do is hear them to understand the story.
Going into the film, I foolishly assumed that the film would be a more sympathetic portrayal of deaf students. Of course, in actuality, it’s a look at a brutal deaf mafia. How did you decide to focus on that aspect of deaf youth culture? It’s a part of political correctness, perhaps, that deaf minorities should be portrayed in a nice way. Deaf audiences have responded very positively to the film, they accept it as a big breakthrough for the deaf community. Concerning the subject of the film, I wanted the story to be like a Western. You have a foreigner coming to a new city, and inside this small city he falls in love with a girl he can’t have. But nobody is good in The Tribe. It’s a world in the Nietzsche style; it’s beyond good and evil. We are on the side of the protagonist because we follow him; we’re with him. He does some not very nice things, but we follow him anyway.
Anyway, I wanted to speak about the deaf mafia. Do you have it in the United States? It’s a very powerful thing in the former Soviet Union countries, especially Russia and the Ukraine. In the former Soviet Union they have an unofficial parallel society. They have a system of unofficial jail and unofficial justice, and an unofficial underworld society of the city. I spoke with a principal of a school for the deaf. She came from a small city, and she was a child of deaf parents — children of deaf parents often work in this world because they know sign language from childhood, so they have a nice opportunity for a career. This woman told me that when she was planning to go to Kiev from her city, she asked for some advice from a member of, basically, the deaf mafia. She was told that her parents had to pay them money, a tax, and only after they paid the money could she go to Kiev. So I found that mafia to be very interesting, and I wanted to build it inside the school. I think the school just comprises the lowest level of that structure. And I had a lot of people whom I consulted, who told me a lot of stories from the deaf community. That’s how I wound up with a story about criminals.
I wanted to ask lastly about the manner in which the film is shot. Of course, every scene in the film, just about, is one take, which is a bravura formalist choice. How did you come to decide to shoot the film that way? To be clear, we didn’t decide to do it from the outset. You know, it’s a bit complicated to make an over-the-shoulder shot with deaf people because it doesn’t look very good. When we were shooting our rehearsals, we were thinking about the moving camera, and as I watched the rehearsal footage, which was long takes, I realized I liked it. Finally, we decided to shoot it with long takes. The thing about the long sequences and the documentary style is that you become involved inside the film, which is important, because you can’t understand what’s happening otherwise. So the camera is the eyes of the audience.