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Interviewing Yana Novikova, Star of ‘The Tribe,’ Was a One-of-a-kind Experience

The Most Unique Interview Ever for the Most Unique Film of the Year

For those of us who don’t go to Cannes and witness everything
from afar, the buzz that comes out of the Croisette in the form of reviews,
features, and even social media posts, is the best, and often only, way to determine
what films to be on the lookout for once they start rolling out into smaller,
more accessible festivals.

Over a year ago, the one film that attracted the most attention out of the
festival’s Critics’ Week sidebar was Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s “The Tribe,” a
one-of-a-kind coming-of-age story that takes place in a boarding school for
deaf teenagers, which was deliberately screened without any subtitles.

The premise sounded like an insane idea, but when I had the
chance to watch the film last November at AFI Fest, I witnessed and fell for its shocking
quality. Soon after I was offered an interview with the film’s lead actress,Yana Novikova, who is in fact deaf like the majority of the cast. Her character endures horrific situations, but remains a clever and strong throughout. The characters are never victimized solely becase they are deaf. They are presented as fully nuanced people capable of good and evil like everyone else. That’s what makes “The Tribe” so particularly provocative.  

Eagerly I accepted, but even before I walked into a cozy
bar just off Hollywood boulevard, I knew I was in for an atypical event. I just
didn’t know how much until three people, Yana included, approached me to start the

We sat in a comfy booth. On one side were Yana and the Ukrainian
translator, who would kindly convert the actress’ words in Ukrainian Sign Language into English Sign Language. Given that unfortunately I have no
knowledge of sign language – in any variation – an English translator sat next
me. She would be in charge of translating what the Ukrainian translator would gather from
Yana into spoken English for me to understand.

Four people to create a cycle of information that would prove
challenging under any circumstances. I would be the catalyst by verbally asking
a question, which I did looking at Yana, but actually aiming at the English
translator. She would then start passing over the question to the Ukrainian
translator in English Sign Language. In turn the Ukrainian translator would
finally deliver my question to the star in her native Ukrainian Sign Language.

Since some answers were more intricate and required more time
to be processed through this human translating apparatus, both translators had
notepads in case they needed to save a certain amount of information before continuing.
The result of this unique set up was a three-question interview that lasted
over 20 minutes. Slaboshpitsky was always referred to as “the
director” to simplify things as much as possible in an already complex

“The Tribe” is a film that communicates with its audience in
a non-verbal manner. There are no subtitles or any other way to know exactly
what the characters on screen are saying, but that’s never an issue for it to
powerfully make its message heard. It’s the purest form of cinema because it
can be shown anywhere in the world without modification, and the devastating
result would be the same.

It’s only fitting that an interview with the lead actress of
a film like this was as much of a unique experience as the film itself. One in
which communicating in a traditional manner was a challenging, but also very
rewarding reminder that sometimes words are not all that important.

When the English translator finished explain the mechanics, I dove right in.

Aguilar: I loved the film, it was like nothing I’ve seen before.

Long Pause. The first one of many to come as my questions or statements became more complicated to translate. 

Yana Novikova:
Thank you very much

Aguilar: What did you do to prepare for such gritty and intense film like “The Tribe”?

As mentioned, very question was followed by a long waiting period in which the message went through a cycle of translation to return to me in plain spoken
English. Sometimes a couple of minutes would pass before I could hear what Yana wanted to say from the mouth of the English translator, who had been taking notes
as she looked at the first translator, who in turned had looked at Yana’s hands to interpret.

English Translator:
We are trying to get a full message first so I can put it in English instead of stopping with each word.

I nodded not wanting to interfere in what already seemed like a challenging operation.

Aguilar: This is fascinating

Another 30 seconds past and I finally got my first answer

Yana Novikova:
Before I was chosen for this role on the film, I had been studying acting in college. So I’d be given scripts and I rehearsed and practiced my acting skills that way.

Just as she finished that sentence the English translator corrected herself. Something had gotten lost in translation
and she was trying to get the correct response. 

Yana Novikova:
Sorry, I wasn’t studying acting in college, but the director of “The Tribe,” had a place for actors to get together.

English Translator:
Forget the college thing.

It wasn’t difficult to assume that this was going to be a very special type of interview.

Yana Novikova:
The director had a place where he would invite different actors to come to rehears and prepare. They called me to come and join that group, and I
started doing some preparation and some rehearsals. All of the different deaf actors that were chosen for the film were there, and we were all in one room
together. Then the director, as he watched all of us, determined which person was going to get which part. He delegated the different characters. He
tested everyone out to see who would be the best fit for the different roles, and that was of course before filming started. That’s the way we prepared.

I was satisfied with her answer thus far, but Yana wanted to elaborate and the hypnotizing waiting game began again for me, as the other three people in the table talked to each other with
their hands. It was alienating but also undoubtedly curious.

Yana Novikova:
In addition to getting together with the other deaf actors and having the roles assigned to us, at this point we were given part of the story. We were able to go through a part of the
story and get and idea of it, and start preparing for what the movie was going to be about.

Another brief pause

Yana Novikova:
When we were ready to start filming, two or three days before the first morning, we had to do physical body warm-ups to kind of get into character. We’d get up
in the morning – I’m kind of a sleepy head – and I really had to wake up and get moving. I had to really get motivated and get ready for filming.
Throughout the filming of the movie, I would do the same thing everyday. I would have the same routine, get up and get moving, and get ready for that day.

Once Yana had finished answering my first question, I was ready to keep going, but I had realized that I had to be selective with what I’d ask because
the translation process was quickly consuming my time.

Aguilar: How difficult is it to find roles for deaf actors? I assume is probably very hard to come across a good role.

30 seconds after posing this question the second avid translator, the one that directly communicated with me via spoken language, conveyed the first part of the
actress’ answer.

Yana Novikova:
Yes, it is difficult because in Ukraine there is almost no opportunities for deaf actors, actually there are no opportunities at all. This is the one
and only Ukrainian director making this type of movie, the first deaf movie, which is great for “The Tribe” because it’s the first deaf film. But otherwise, there are no opportunities
in Ukraine for deaf actors. Whether you are watching the trailer or the full film you’ll see…

Long pause and then the translation changes direction as probably something about the statement needed to be revised.

Yana Novikova:
This is the first full-length movie with all deaf actors. There have been short films with deaf actors playing deaf parts, but this is the first
full-length film with an all deaf cast.

Once again Yana started articulating her answer to the first translator, who would translate from Ukrainian sign language to English sign language. Eventually the English translator started receiving the information. This time
an entire minute had passed before I hear the next segment of Yana’s eloquent statement.

Yana Novikova:
It was either in 2009 or 2010, that there was a short film with three deaf actors involved. And those three actors had three small parts and like I said
it was several years ago, it was 2009 or 2010. The director chose three different deaf actors just for three small parts, but the story that was told in
that film actually relates to “The Tribe.” It has a relationship with the longer film. Before “The Tribe” was made, that short film was made…

The translator indicates she will now translate the title of the short film. We wait briefly and then it comes. It had to be translated letter by
letter and written on the English translator’s note pad for me to read.

English Translator: “Hlukhota,” that was the short film she is talking about, it was made with three deaf actors. We need to go back an clarify just a little bit.
Hold on.

The Ukrainian translator and her exchange information, and then she continued.

Yana Novikova:
The three deaf actors that were involved with that project…. Once the film was out people really liked it and they wanted to buy the film

Both translators tried to figure out the best way to pass on this part of the message, which was becoming difficult.

English Translator:
OK, got it!

Yana Novikova:
Because this first project was fairly successful, they used the revenue that it earned to make “The Tribe”

Later I learned that the short film Yana mentioned,
“Hlukhota,” had an English title “Deafness,” and was in fact directed by Slaboshpitsky prior to “The Tribe.”

Every time and answer was finished, I felt like my next question could be my last. We were ten minutes in and my interview was made up of only two
questions. But it didn’t matter. I was mesmerized by the ordeal.

Aguilar: Tell me about your relationship with the director given that you have to put yourself out there in very vulnerable scenes?

The cycle started once again and the English translator was doing her best to explain the question. Once it was in the hands of the Ukrainian
translator for Yana to see, the answer began its course towards me.

Yana Novikova:
Before we even started filming the movie, before I even knew what the story was about

Silence once again. The translators were struggling through this one.

Yana Novikova:
Before I even had the plot or the script, the director would tell me a little bit about he movie. He’d say, “It’s a love story and it takes place in a
boarding school.” I was given little bits of information but I didn’t have all of the details just yet.

She said all of this was before they started filming

Once she had clarified that, she continued to tell me what happened once production started

Yana Novikova: Each day at the beginning of filming I would be told what was going to happen that day, like the cafeteria scene or something else. Then I’d go to the
set next day and the director would tell me what we would be filming that day specifically. Everyday he would tell me, “We are going to work on this, “ or
“We are going to work on that.” I didn’t know what the rest of the movie would entail. Everyday I was given the part of the script or the plan just
for that day. I didn’t yet know what scenes were coming ahead.

Yana’s answer was getting at something. I patiently waited to hear more from her, but even without knowing a word of sign language, I could tell this was a lengthy one that involved some sort of disagreement based on her facial expressions. 

Yana Novikova:
There was day when were filming the scene were Sergey arrives at the boarding school in which two other boys are showing him to his room, and then they push him
into the girls bedroom as a joke. I actually didn’t like that, but the director said, “No, you need to do that.” Is not
something I was expecting, so we got into a little bit of a argument about that particular scene. I told him, “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to
take my clothes off for that.” At that time the director asked me, “Well, do you want to be involved with this project or not?” So I walked off. Then the
director said, “Fine, you can go. If you don’t want to do that is up to you.”

Following this sizeable amount of information, we waited once again for Yana to tell us how things turned around.

Yana Novikova:
The director’s wife acted as sort of an interpreter for me, and we had other interpreters as well. Later, director’s wife and another
interpreter came over and spoke with me regarding that scene and tried to calm me down. They said I didn’t have to worry and we talked. They
explained to me, “It’s just a movie. It’s not real. It’s just for the purposes of the film.” We talked and they really made me comfortable by helping me
understand better what the purpose of it was. It wasn’t just to take my clothes off.

They helped me understand its purpose in the story. Once I was done talking with the director’s wife I understood a lot better and I felt that I could go
forward with it. I understood it would help the movie be a success and that it would work well for it. Then we went on. I got back to filming the scene. Since the day before I had gotten into a fight with the director, when I came back it was a little awkward. At first our relationship was a little
bit awkward. When I came back a day after that to continue filming the scene, the director got the whole group of actors together. He wanted us to watch
another film to help us have a better overall understanding of the filming process. He showed us this other film to make us more comfortable and give us a
better idea of what he was after.

At this point the film’s publicist let us know that we had time for one more question – my fourth one overall. The translator asked if I wanted to pose
my last question, but I didn’t want to cut Yana off and decided to hear the last part of the story she was already telling me.

Yana Novikova:
So we watched this movie and it was about characterization. It was about facial expressions, body language, and all of these different things. I absolutely
loved it. It really impacted me in a way that was helpful for me. It was a French movie…

Now we needed to know the title. The translator had her notepad ready to write it down and be precise.

She said the name of the movie is “Adele”

Yana Novikova:
The movie was about this particular person named Adele. It was about a lesbian couple.

Aguilar: “La Vie de Adele”? It’s called “Blue is the Warmest Color” in English.

Yes that’s the one, “The Life of Adele”

Yana Novikova: That’s the film that he had us watch. That was an award-winning movie. It was fantastic. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and was given an
award. After watching it I wanted to go to France, and I wanted to meet the actresses. It’ll be great to meet some of these actors. I’m hoping to be able to do that. I
really wanted “The Tribe” to win an award at Cannes. That was a dream of mine. This movie really impacted me. Once we had watched the French film the director
asked us, “What did you think?” I though it was fantastic. Then he told me, “If you really want it, if you work hard for this movie, it can be
equivalent to that film. We can make it happen, we can get this film to Cannes.” From that point on we worked hard, we went for it, we did our best, and the
film went to Cannes.

Time was up. I thanked the translators for their diligence in helping me communicate with the actress, and Yana herself for agreeing to the experiential interview. It was a conversation that taught me more about communication than any ordinary Q&A could have and while our actual exchanges were numbered, Yana’s answers were incredibly thoughtful. And unlike many of us that speak without purpose just because we can, she has something to say.

I left the bar that night thinking, “What I’m going to do with this interview?”

Now we know the answer.

“The Tribe” opens today in NYC at the Film Forum and in Los Angeles on June 25th at The Cinefamily

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