Monday, June 22, 2015

The Tribe: Silently screaming from the void

Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's The Tribe, starring Yana Novikova (center), is a modern masterpiece.

Silence may be among the most terrifying things in our culture. Because silence implies an absence – of sound, of company, of life – we take it upon ourselves to fill the void any way we can. In that empty space, we hear cracks and creaks and groans and moans, and we ascribe to them meaning, import, and danger. When the TV is off, the lights are out, and we are lying in bed, there is nothing but the beating of our hearts and the blood in our veins. The millions of thoughts ringing in our subconscious echo in the nothingness, and we are scared. But if the only world you know is silence, what is there to fear? Perhaps, each other.

Ukrainian director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe is among the most formally daring, visually stunning, and emotionally taxing films you are ever likely to see. It concerns a student’s arrival at a boarding school for the deaf and follows as he becomes a member of the school’s ruling gang and the toll that acceptance takes on him physically and emotionally. The film is told entirely in Ukrainian sign language without subtitles, and despite running more than two hours, it is composed of fewer than 40 shots. There is no other experience in cinema to match.

On Friday, Slaboshpitsky and one of the film’s stars, Yana Novikova, were in New York City for a screening of the film and a question-and-answer session moderated by Indiewire’s Eric Kohn. In an illuminating and vibrant discussion, they covered topics such as the film’s remarkable technical achievements, its harrowing violence, and the audacity of making a film that only a small population of people could fully understand.

Yana Novikova and Miroslav Slaboshpitsky at Film Forum.
“To be clear, I had the concept of the film before I had the story,” said Slaboshpitsky. “It must be done without subtitles and without voiceover. It must be filmed like how I imagine a silent movie like the Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin films, or Harold Lloyd, which people can understand in every country in every place in the same condition, so subtitle is impossible … In the contract, we have an article that the person who buys the film has an obligation never to add subtitles or voiceover or anything like that, so I hope we never show this film with subtitles, not before my death but after, too.”

The difference is that even the great silent comedians used title cards throughout their films to keep the audience following the story. In this way, The Tribe is closer to the works of German silent film director F.W. Murnau, who sought to make films using as few interstitial cards as possible to allow the story to play out on its own. His success, and by extension the success of The Tribe, is to achieve unimaginable levels of psychological depth and inquiry in an essentially wordless setting.

Certainly, there are words, and none of the actors – all of whom are deaf – was making up any of the film’s dialogue. It simply is not necessary to understand the words in order to understand the intent. Even in our daily lives, as hearing-able individuals, so much of our interaction with others is non-verbal – a glance, a gesture, a smile, or a pose – that understanding communication without words seems to be an innate part of all of us.

“I have the challenge to make a film without subtitles when it was over … so I tried to build a story that the audience can follow,” said Slaboshpitsky. “In case you understand Ukrainian sign language, I think you can understand maybe 10 percent more, but I don’t think that you miss something important. In fact, you can completely understand the words, but the words are not really important.”

As such, what becomes important is the mood and atmosphere of the film, and Slaboshpitsky proves deft at building on his audience’s expectations and the general fear and discomfort caused by silences. Since we in the audience cannot understand what is being said, we feel like outsiders, but the use of long takes and Steadicam shots forces us to become part of the action. This puts viewers in the unique position of being accomplices to actions over which we have no control, similar to the film’s main character, played by Grigoriy Fesenko.

He is new to this school, but because power attracts like a magnet, he is lured into the world of drug dealing, robbery, and prostitution lorded over by the titular tribe. They run the school like a deaf mafia – which Slaboshpitsky stressed is a real phenomenon in Ukraine – and theirs is a brutal rule, punctuated by shocking acts of violence and psychological abuse. When Fesenko’s character falls in love with one of the prostitutes, played by Novikova, the whole hierarchal structure of the regime is threatened. Thus, the downfall of all involved begins.

For a first-time performer, Novikova is absolutely magnificent. Really, the performance is marvelous regardless of experience level, but as someone who had never previously acted, Novikova brings a remarkable amount of skill and professionalism to a part that asks an incredible amount of her. She bares herself completely, body and spirit, and brings us into the life of a young girl who has resigned herself to the options available to her and made peace with the things she must do to carve out a life for herself.

“I asked my mom, ‘Do you think I could become an actress in the future,’ and my mom was like, ‘I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s possible. You’re deaf. Deaf people in movies? There’s no deaf people in movies,’” said Novikova through a sign language interpreter. “I felt kind of bad about it. I went to school, and I was never involved in any acting classes or courses or opportunities … I kept looking for something that could help me reach my goal of wanting to be an actress. Then, it just so happens that I was asked to be in this movie, The Tribe, by Miroslav, and I was so thankful for it. I was so inspired by the whole thing, and that’s how I begun, and now I’m going to pursue acting after this.”

Most of the actors in the film are first-timers – according to Slaboshpitsky, there are more than 300 deaf actors in The Tribe – but none, not even Fesenko, who is also brilliant in the film, endured as much as Novikova. One sequence in particular is certain to become infamous among viewers of the film. An illegal abortion, played out in one long take, is about as raw and grueling a viewing experience as I have ever witnessed. In a packed house at the Film Forum, the scene left grown men sobbing, and at least one person was so overcome he or she had to be removed from the theater.

Novikova spoke at length about the process of researching and preparing for the scene, as well as the physically and emotionally draining experience of shooting the scene. She said there was a medical professional on set to advise both her and the character performing the procedure, and the shot was repeated over and over until the full impact and realism of the scene could be transmitted on film.

“They explained to us how this goes and what’s this and what’s this process and really broke everything down for us to understand and digest it,” she said. “Once the director felt like we were comfortable with it and we understood what was happening, we filmed it. It took all day, and we kept rehearsing it again and again and again for days, and we kept reshooting it again. If we made a mistake, we shot it again. Again and again. We had to make sure it was done in the right way and capture it, capture the true emotions, the raw, gritty emotions in that moment.”

The sequence – in its preparation, shooting, and final presentation – is a microcosm of the film itself. Slaboshpitsky took it upon himself to present a society rarely considered by the rest of the world, and his responsibility was to show it as it exists. There is no Hollywood sheen, no artificial drama. It is just reality as experienced by an overlooked and underserved subculture. In digging into the muck and brutality, Slaboshpitsky exposes a raw nerve, aching for relief and screaming out in pain. The Tribe is a masterpiece that argues there is no relief coming, and the screams are simply echoes in a silent void.

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