Inside 'The Tribe': How the Sign-Language Crime Drama Triumphed at Cannes

The Tribe Still Cannes - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

The Tribe Still Cannes - H 2014

The Ukrainian film's director and star describe the project's challenges, from first nude scenes to shooting during street protests.

The Tribe centers on a boarding school for the deaf in Ukraine, which becomes the unexpected setting for a highly unconventional crime story. Protagonist Sergey (Grigory Fesenko) is a new student who quickly enters into his schoolmates' ring of street violence and prostitution, rising in the ranks until his romance with one of the girls (Yana Novikova) comes to a dark conclusion. It's entirely in sign language without subtitles, and director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy hired deaf actors for every principal role.

The film was the big winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Critics Week, securing the top prize (the €10,000 Grand Prix Nespresso) and two other honors, the most of any film at the festival in 2014. Drafthouse acquired the Ukrainian film for North American release and currently is rolling it out city by city. (It's midway through its Los Angeles run at the Cinefamily.)

Slaboshpytskiy and Novikova (via an interpreter) shared the film's story with The Hollywood Reporter, from the real deaf community that gave Slaboshpytskiy the idea to the influence of fellow Cannes sensation Blue Is the Warmest Color to the Ukrainian protests that nearly ended the project.

Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation:

Where did you get the idea?

SLABOSHPYTSKIY When I was a boy, I was studying in the same school where we shot the film, and across the road there was the deaf boarding school. When I saw how the deaf people communicated, it impressed me so much because it looks like they do not need words, and they could communicate directly by exchanging feelings and emotions.

I went to film school in the "Tarantino ages," the time of postmodernism, when every director tried to get any old forms and rethink them in new ways. I thought it would be a great idea to make a modern silent film. Then I made the short film Deafness to test this way of storytelling. With Deafness I thought, "It works."

Is the students’ criminality inspired by real events?

SLABOSHPYTSKIY There's a very interesting cultural and political anomaly in the former Soviet Union. It's called the deaf mafia. It's because we have no social protections for the deaf community in Ukraine, because it's a developing country. It doesn't look like a City of God-style street gang, it looks like a parallel, unofficial social structure. It means in every city we have an unofficial boss of the community. This boss, he gets taxes from unofficial business, and he can decide any conflict situation inside the community. It's like an Italian-style mob.

I put this situation inside the school because everybody has a school experience. I'll never be part of the deaf boarding school, but I was a part of a school, and we had a hierarchical system inside the school. Bullying, everybody knows about it. It's like the lowest level of gangs. I put this story inside the school and tried to show this hierarchical system.

Yana, how did you feel when first you read the script?

NOVIKOVA I was overwhelmed. It became more and more difficult when I had to start removing my clothes. First the script said just something minimal like a bra, but then I had to take off my clothes completely. I wasn't ready to go fully nude. I was upset, overwhelmed and not quite prepared for that.

What changed your mind?

NOVIKOVA There's a French film called Blue Is the Warmest Color, which Myroslav said I should watch. When I saw that film, it really affected me. I became much more open, and I told Myroslav, "That’s it. That film really gave me what I needed."

It won awards at Cannes, and I wasn’t familiar with what the Cannes festival was, but when I learned it was an important, famous film festival, it sounded really exciting. I asked, 'Does The Tribe have the potential to be shown at Cannes?"' Myroslav told me it could. From that point on I got really motivated. I got really into my role and got really into the character. The day the film was selected, the director was shocked. I was like, "This is amazing." I was finally an actress. I felt so good about it.

What was your most difficult day of shooting?

NOVIKOVA The abortion scene. I didn't really understand it on many levels because I'd never been through it myself. The director would say I would have to envision myself in that situation, and I was like, "How?" I did my research, reading women's experiences who'd gone through it and speaking with women who had [an abortion], and tried to process what that had been like. Myroslav took us to a facility to show us what it's like to go through the process, and he would videotape me practicing the scene and show it to one of the doctors. The doctor would watch my emotional reactions and give feedback, say, "Yes, that’s it," so I would know which parts of the performance to use.

SLABOSHPYTSKIY Every day was difficult because we started to shoot before the Ukrainian revolution. The battles with police were happening, and we were shooting during the same time. Sometimes the city was blocked by police and we had to cancel the shooting day.

I was nervous because the main actor, Grigory, he would go into the city and take part in the protests. Of course I supported the protests, but I was very nervous because it was at the time when the police would shoot people to death. If someone shoots him, there goes my film. Sometimes people spoke about martial law, because if it happened we couldn’t shoot, and the police could break into your apartment. We had an escape plan: In case of emergency we would just take everything and go to Poland.