In my freshman year at Bard College in 1961, I took a writer’s workshop with celebrated beat poet Robert Kelly who gave an assignment that all of us had trouble with, namely to write a short story without any human beings as characters. It was obviously some sort of technical challenge that we had trouble wrapping our heads around, even if it perhaps was designed to get us to think outside the box.
That was my first reaction to “The Tribe”, a Ukrainian film that opens tomorrow at the Film Forum in NY. I knew that the characters are deaf teenagers in a boarding school in Kiev but I hadn’t anticipated what was in store for me as the film started at a press screening. It began with this announcement:
This film is in sign-language. There are no subtitles or voice-over.
What could possibly have made the director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiiy decide to take this approach? To rise to a technical challenge of making a “silent movie” that defied the audience to not understand a single word being exchanged by the characters? My initial reaction was to bolt from my seat and return home but since I had traveled almost an hour from my Upper East Side apartment to the Film Forum in Soho, I sighed and decided to stick it out.
Not only did I stick it out for the entire 133 minutes, I found it to be a most compelling drama that draws you into the lives of its characters, all of whom are nonprofessionals and deaf.
Although the story is centered in a boarding school, the film will remind you of any number of those that take place in reformatories such as “Dog Pound” or “Bad Boys”. In such films, there is always a newcomer to the prison who despite himself ends up in a struggle with the alpha males who bully and steal from those beneath them in the hierarchy.
“The Tribe” begins with its hero Sergei showing up at the boarding school, where he is shaken down by the gang that runs the institution with the blessings of the administrators. They take him behind the school where out of sight he is forced to strip and surrender any money that he has brought with him to the school. Sergei takes this in stride since he understands that he is outnumbered.
A few days later, the same gang members summon him to a clearing near the school where he is forced to defend himself from their blows. Despite once again being outnumbered, he fights back effectively and nearly throttles the leader of the pack. His fighting skills are so impressive that they recruit him into the gang. Always accepting things almost fatalistically, Sergei accepts their invitation and joins them in nightly excursions to a nearby truck stop where two girls from the school are prostituted to the drivers with the full cooperation of the administrators who get a cut of the proceeds.
Complications arise when Sergei falls in love with Anya, one of the two girls he has been pimping. She is so hardened by her experience in the school that she finds his affection almost incomprehensible. Mostly it is lust that opens her up to him rather than love.
Throughout it all, you understand everything that is going on even though you have no idea what they are saying to each other (unless you understand sign-language.) As a mixture of pantomime and silent film without the titles, the story is communicated by the actions of the characters and amplified by the body language and facial expressions that accompany the “dialog” as the director points out in the press notes:
I never considered the idea of making this film with hearing actors. It would have been an entirely different kind of film. The body language, the sign language they use is natural for them, and it is very individual; much more individual than French, Russian or German spoken by a particular person. People who speak out loud use only facial muscles to pronounce their speech, while deaf people use their entire body to communicate. To me, this is what makes this group unique and extremely interesting.
The press notes also indicate that “The Tribe” resonated with the Euromaidan protests that were taking place just under 10 miles from the filming.
Most of the shooting took place on the outskirts of Kiev, in the district where I spent my childhood. Previously, it was named after Stalin, and even now it’s called “Stalinka”. Most of the buildings here were built by German POWs after WWII. This proletarian district, built mainly of red brick, resembles some of the buildings in New York. Shooting began prior to the protests in Ukraine and completed after the Russian invasion in the Crimea. Our work was quite tense. Some cast members, including actors, participated in protests and street clashes in their spare time. Some days we had to cancel shooting because of road blockades, as the cars with our equipment simply could not get through to the set. Ironically, the producer and I live just four kilometers away from the Maidan.
Finally, as was obvious to anybody familiar with the history of Ukraine, the story had a lot to with the protests even though it never alluded once to the hierarchy that obtained under oligarchic rule:
A boarding school is better than just a school because it is a closed system, which––like a prison––can be perceived to be a metaphor of the state even if that isn’t the intention. The Tribe is, to a certain extent, a metaphor of the arrangement of the Ukrainian state, at least the pre-revolutionary Ukraine. And the arrangement of the state of Ukraine was based on the principle of a Mafiosi group.
For those with an appetite for the fresh and the challenging film (ostensibly those who tend to agree with my reviews), my strongest recommendation for “The Tribe”, a sign of the indomitable character of the Ukrainian artist.
Finally, and once again from the press notes, biographical information on the two lead characters:
Grigoriy Fesenko (Sergei)
Fesenko was born in 1994 in Kiev. His mother is a cleaner, his father is unemployed, and there are three children in their family. Fesenko will graduate from a school for children with hearing impairments this year. He’s interested in everything associated with street culture, and is a graffiti artist, parkourist, and roofer. Currently, his future plans remain unknown. He had previously spent some time playing on one of the Kiev sports society’s deaf football teams, but abandoned football when he was cast in The Tribe.
Yana Novikova (Anya)
Novikova was born in 1993 in a village near the small Belarusian town of Gomel to hearing parents. She became deaf at the age of two weeks due to illness, and her younger sister also became deaf in early childhood. She studied at a boarding school for children with hearing impairments, and loves to dance, draw, and practice pantomime. After graduation, she went to Gomel, where she enrolled in the College of Engineering. After studying for a year, she realized that engineering was not for her. Novikova loves cinema and has dreamed of acting since her childhood. After she heard about the casting call for a small quota of deaf actors from Theater Rainbow (Ukrainian Society of the Deaf) at the Kiev Theatre Academy, she dropped out of college and went to Kiev for the audition. Theater Rainbow did not accept her application, but she was noticed by director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, who invited her to the casting call for The Tribe. During the audition, Novikova utterly eclipsed all other participants.
After she was cast, Novikova lived in Kiev in a rental apartment for three months. She took part in the pilot shooting of The Tribe, despite the fact that she didn‘t know whether or not she was approved for the leading role until shooting began. She is currently living in Kiev and pursuing acting full time.