“I am fucking angry,” Miroslav Slaboshpitsky told me over tortilla chips and Coca-Cola at Cabo Wabo, a tacky Mexican restaurant on the top story of the Hollywood and Highland Center in Los Angeles. Not exactly the dream place to meet the director of a film about a society of deaf criminal teens in Ukraine.
It was AFI Fest and we were talking about why Slaboshpitsky’s home country did not submit his extraordinary film “The Tribe” — which Drafthouse Films eagerly snapped up literally right after its 2014 Cannes Film Festival premiere — to the 2015 Academy Awards. Instead, the republic’s Oscar committee went with Oles Sanin’s patriotic “The Guide,” “because it has ideology similar to Putin’s Russia,” said Slaboshpitsky, who claimed that of the nine committee members, only four deliberated over the nomination, and three were associated with “The Guide.”
“One of the judges on the committee was from the company doing post-production on the ‘The Guide,'” and was apparently receiving funds from the film “to rent special equipment, cranes, tractors. It was a conflict of interest, and a corruption story.” Slaboshpitsky and his producer Denis Ivanov filed an actual complaint. The next day, the head of the Ukrainian Oscar board resigned, along with three other members. But it was too late. “The Guide” would represent Ukraine in the 2015 foreign Oscar race. (The Hollywood Reporter digs into this controversy as well.)
“Politicians now in power in Ukraine were standing behind ‘The Guide,’ he said. “They told us if we did not stop complaining they would actually do something bad to us. They created such an atmosphere for people that if somebody stood against the movie, it was the same as standing in front of a train on the rails.” Much to Slaboshpitsky’s surprise, “the Russian Oscar committee turned out to be much better than the Ukrainian one” when Andrey Zvyagintsev’s staunchly anti-Putin melodrama “Leviathan” represented that country.
According to Slaboshpitsky, even though Ukraine funded his Cannes Critics’ Week winner, the state “absolutely does not like the movie.” No matter, because “The Guide” didn’t get an Oscar nomination, and no one will remember it like they will “The Tribe,” a masterpiece of cinematic purity whose power derives from one of the medium’s most essential elements: silence.
Making a movie with deaf actors
Somewhere on the outskirts of Kiev, we are dropped into a remote boarding school for the deaf alongside Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a shy and awkward teenager who has been shipped off, presumably by his parents, to straighten out. He’s quickly indoctrinated into this world’s ritualistic rule, and under the wing of the school gang’s blond-headed leader whom Slaboshpitsky describes as “a person who is like the main arbitrator” of “an Italian-style mafia.” The film relies wholly on gesture and movement to speak for these characters as they hurtle toward apocalyptic doom.
The director “had a high concept to make a silent film, in sign language,” he said, “and I wanted to speak about the deaf mafia, which is very special in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.” So his film is told entirely through sign, without subtitles, and set in the now dank and deteriorated corridors and classrooms of the very warren he was schooled in as a boy.
This Ukrainian boarding school, which is not actually a deaf school, holds the unofficial nickname “Stalin Camp.” Close to the edges of Kiev, and in a suburban, working-class neighborhood, it was built by German prisoners of war after WWII (“One of my German producers said, ‘That’s why it’s still standing'”) and resides in a formerly Stalin-governed district. Slaboshpitsky named one of the film’s “hooligans” after one of his own tormenting classmates — he wouldn’t tell me which one — but the autobiography stops there.
“I didn’t plan to shoot in [my] school,” he said. “When we collected all the money,” which came from Ukraine and the Rotterdam Film Festival, “we were looking for a school, but finally we came back to mine because… I remembered what the classrooms looked like, I know when we go into the hall between lessons, when we had a meeting in the toilet. I spent my childhood there.”
Slaboshpitsky knows the Ukrainian deaf community very well. In 2010, he made a short film titled “Deafness,” which prompted him to dig deeper into this society. “The stories you see [in ‘The Tribe’] are a compilation of stories of different people from the deaf world, and a little bit of my experience from my very short career of crime journalism.”
He knew he wanted to make a “simple story,” and that he wanted to shoot a Western. “It’s a typical construction of the Western, where foreigners” — in this case, Sergey — “come to the city, attract the girlfriend of the main guy, become rebellious, things like that.”
Among “The Tribe”‘s many radical artistic signatures is its cast of entirely nonprofessional deaf teenagers. “I don’t know how it works in the US, but I’m sure if you went to the casting agency in Kiev and ask for deaf people of special ages and conditions, nobody would help us,” Slaboshpitsky joked. He and his wife began casting with the support of the Ukrainian Society of the Deaf, calling “all deaf boarding school directors in Kiev, Crimea, everywhere.”
He said “There’s a very enthusiastic social network of deaf people in Russia. It’s very special. They have no border, they communicate with you in the same way.” Thus, Slaboshpitsky opened casting calls on social media, and maintained a website, and ended up with about 300 kids eager to audition. “We weren’t look for any actors who could play a certain role. We were looking for very charismatic personalities who could, I don’t know, touch us? Impress us, you know?”
The team whittled these non-actors down to small groups, and brought them from Russia and Belarus to the boarding school. “We made some testing shots, and we discussed how they looked: Does this person look interesting, or do we need to keep looking? Then we finally selected the people you see in the film.”
Creating an on-set competition
Still, he knew that eliciting strong, expressive performances from young non-actors would not be easy. He had to get creative. “It’s very popular in the deaf society, among clever persons, to have competitions. Mr. Deaf, Mrs. Deaf. So a guy from the deaf society proposed we make casting like a competition. After all the meetings, we put photos on a website of the people who continue in the ‘competition.’ And of course, when they are best of the best, they get more money, a car to transport you, rented rooms, a contract.”
The spirit of this faux competition carried over to the set. “The first two months, they were feeling like a star and were acting like stars as well. They decided they were completely Hollywood, and all the staff were complaining about them, that they were impossibly to work with,” especially “with makeup. And they were scared of me.”
Slaboshpitsky, working from his screenplay that reads on the page “like a very usual script about a school,” spent six months filming inside the boarding school while aided by a translator. “We didn’t push the actors to make something. They just communicate. You, the audience, can understand without words,” said the director, who doesn’t speak sign language but “of course, they taught me some curse words in sign.”
Going to ugly places
As the criminal activities of the students escalate, from drug-trading to an underground prostitution ring facilitated by one of the schoolteachers, “The Tribe” goes to very ugly places, and the actors are asked to strip down. To prep for the film’s starkly composed sex scenes — which are about as sexy as a speculum — Slaboshpitsky encouraged the cast to watch Winterbottom’s “9 Songs” and Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris.” Like “The Tribe,” the sex in those films draws from baser, psychic instincts, and the inability to communicate. So for the deaf students, who must create their own social order, sex, like signing, is another mode of expression.
For Yana Novikova—the beautiful young actress who plays the “girlfriend of the main guy,” as the director put it, turning nightly tricks at a truck stop to collect money for her visa—the nudity was a problem, and she had a jealous boyfriend, a runner for disabled athletes. “The Tribe” demands a lot from this first-time actress, including a raw sexual encounter and a long, wearying abortion scene shot in distancing long-take as excruciating as scenes out of Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.”
“The hardest parts were the abortion scene, and that first sex scene,” said Novikova, speaking in sign language parceled out to me through a veritable Rube Goldberg setup of three translators at another table in the restaurant. “I’m meeting Sergey for the first time and having to take my clothes off. I had to be so vulnerable and open.”
What were Slaboshpitsky’s instructions during the abortion scene? “He told me not to follow the specific script, just to let my emotions out. I rehearsed facial expression, emotion, tears, pain.” The director hired a professional nurse to simulate the procedure. “The nurse would explain, ‘Now you’re going to feel pain, now you’re going to get a shot.'”
These are shocking, clinically staged moments that rile us out of comfortability, but they aren’t the reason “The Tribe” got slapped with, for example, a “16” rating in France, which is high even for the French. “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” Abdellatif Kechiche’s wildly graphic lesbian love story, got a “13” for example.
“My distributor was very angry about it, and sent a notice to protest the French Ministry of Culture. But the rating was not for sex. They had a different motivation. The ratings board said it was because of…” Slaboshpitsky, searching for the word, turned to his translator, who said, “it was because there was a ‘special atmosphere’ in the film.”
What exactly is a “special atmosphere”? I asked. “I don’t know,” Slaboshpitsky said. “Because there were no adults in the movie, they couldn’t show young people what to do, what’s good, what’s bad.” The 16 rating in France clearly wasn’t a death sentence, as the film became France’s biggest Ukrainian success in over two decades. Whether or not “The Tribe” will enjoy such success in the US remains in the balance, but it does offer, aside from the universality of its conceit, that crucial ingredient of foreign film appeal: shocking scenes of aberrant sexual violence that people are going to want to see.
After setting the festival circuit ablaze for over year, from Cannes to Toronto and Sundance, Slaboshpitsky is fielding the inevitable English-language film offers. For now, though, he is working on his own sophomore feature, “The Luxembourg,” which received generous funding at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, a “neo-noir” about Chernobyl that starts shooting there at the end of the year. “When you came to the exclusion zone in the Ukraine,” he said, “you’d get a safety lecture, and in this drill they say the territory is the same size as Luxembourg, the European country.” The film will recount his experience as a journalist during the nuclear catastrophe. “I had a very special experience. I know all the people in this place, and how it works. I was flying in a helicopter,” he said. “I was inside the fourth reactor that exploded but I’m still alive, as you can see.”
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