Spellbinding film offers up a look inside a Ukrainian school for the deaf
Often the most original and enduring movies come out of nowhere. That's why we have film festivals, to usher fringe or first-time filmmakers into the limelight, or at least the darkness of the red velvet theatre seat. Some ingenious and intellectually intriguing festival films still manage to end up going straight to VOD, or, worst-case scenario, no platform release at all. It happens all the time ... but not this time, thanks to Austin-based Drafthouse Films, which acquired Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's already award-drenched Ukrainian film The Tribe after it debuted here at Fantastic Fest 2014.
Set in a grim, icy, and eerie boarding school for hearing-impaired youths somewhere in the hinterlands of Ukraine, The Tribe uses nonprofessional actors, extended takes, and an almost clinical dissection of already-outcast youth further crushed – yet surviving, for the most part – by their school's mafialike microcosm of the land of the hearing. Part political allegory aimed at Russian (and neighboring Ukrainian and Belarussian) oligarchy and part experiment in pure cinema, The Tribe is a landmark film by anyone's measure.
There are no subtitles to clue the audience in to what these troubled teens are actually "saying" when they sign, and thus this silent-but-for-snowfall portrait of state-sponsored dehumanization is all the more powerful. Yana Novikova, in her film debut, is ravishingly pragmatic as a resourceful student pimped out by her classmates. Twig-thin and blond but with hands that sign like a scattering of scared sparrows, Novikova is the film's heart and soul. Rarely does a nonactor leave this kind of instant, permanent impression on an audience.
With the help of two interpreters, Kristi Kallina signing in American Sign Language to Yuriy Shayman for the ASL-to-Russian sign language translation, which was then signed in Russian to Novikova, and back again, The Austin Chronicle "spoke" to the young no-longer-nonprofessional actor about her childhood dream of becoming an actor, The Tribe's unorthodox shooting, and the difficulties of making a movie in the Ukrainian winter.
Austin Chronicle: What were some of your favorite films growing up, and was there one in particular that made you want to be an actor?
Yana Novikova: I saw Titanic when I was about 16 or 17 years old, and that's when I really began having aspirations to become an actress. I asked my mom if I could become an actress, and she was honest and said that because I was deaf, she didn't really think so. I had always wanted to be an actress but I didn't know how to become one. My mom tried to persuade me to become an artist and forget about the movies. In Belarus, where I lived, there were no acting programs or anything like that. Eventually I went to college, and that was where the team from The Tribe asked me to get involved. Now, being in the movie, I feel it's just like I woke up from a dream and, wow, I'm an actress and I'm traveling the world! My mom is still in shock about it all.
AC: The Tribe's director, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, used long sequences with few or no cuts. That had to be pretty difficult with a troupe of nonactors, right?
YN: Absolutely, yes. The extended scenes were really hard to do. The director wanted really long scenes, and everything had to be just right. He didn't want to have to cut everything together. If there was even a tiny mistake then we would have to start all over from the beginning, to match the director's vision for how he wanted it. Often you'd be doing it great but then you'd get to the end of the sequence and make one tiny slip-up and have to do it all over again. Some directors do smaller scenes so it's a lot easier, but ooof! this director wanted it a different way.
AC: The Tribe is intense in so many ways. What part of the filming gave you the most trouble?
YN: When myself and the other actor [Grigoriy Fesenko] were walking in to do the whole [sex] scene, that was very difficult because it was such a long walk through the snow and it was such a freezing temperature. It was really difficult having to, you know, get undressed. And then of course the director would decide he had to retake it all. [We] had to get dressed and go back up there to where the scene begins. I feel that was the most difficult. I think they did 20 takes of that. It was exhausting and I had to do it in a very difficult position. It took a long time to get that one exactly right.
Also difficult were the fight scenes with the boys. If the fighting went wrong, they'd be just so exhausted. If you think about it, in real life, when you have that first fight, your energy level is way up, but as you keep going and doing it over and over [as in the film], it took so long and was a very exhausting experience for everyone involved.
AC: How much rehearsal time did the cast have prior to the first day of shooting?
YN: Well, when [the cast] met for the first time, we didn't know each other at all. Most of the other actors were Ukrainian, and then there was a gentleman who was a Russian, and I'm from Belarus. The first time we integrated was awkward, you know? But the director gave us partial pieces of the script and then [the actors] would interact, talk about it, have lunches and meals together. After we got to know each other and started really meshing with the script, it all began to come together.
AC: How long did that take?
YN: After about a week of us practicing and getting to know each other. We'd practice scenes that we felt comfortable with. And then while doing that, if someone had a new vision for the film, we'd try to work that [into the script].
AC: So the director allowed a certain amount of improvisational freedom on the set?
YN: Yes, definitely. He was very much about us feeling as though we had liberty in how we wanted to own our characters. He wanted everybody to feel very free with each other and get to those great emotions, because there is so much emotion in the movie. He didn't want anything to come across as being "acted," so we took a lot of time to get into character and then get into the right mood for the scene.
AC: So he allowed room for you to improvise on the spot?
YN: Yes. For instance, in the van scene where my character kisses [Roza Babiy]'s character, that whole thing was totally improvised, just going with the moment. We were playing prostitutes, and of course they want to look their best, so that whole scene was about my fixing the other character's makeup and then a kiss happened spontaneously. It just seemed like something the character would do.
AC: So how has it been for you – a nonprofessional actor at the start – to suddenly find yourself traveling all over the world promoting this remarkable film?
YN: It's given me the opportunity to check a lot of things off my bucket list! America is where all the famous films are made. Hollywood is known worldwide and so I just wanted to go and see that. Not just Hollywood, but America itself. I grew up watching all these famous films from America and always having that dream to someday come here. Now that's no longer a dream, although sometimes it feels like one.
The Tribe opens at the Alamo Drafthouse Friday, July 10. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.