How Ukrainian cinema brought body language to Cannes

A plotless documentary about the Ukrainian revolution and an almost silent film scripted in sign language dominated this year's festival

the tribe
"The Tribe", one of the Ukrainian films which dominated Cannes Courtesy of Allocine

Over the past decade, Ukraine–born actresses Milena Markovna (aka Mila Kunis), and Olga Kostyantynivna Kurylenko attracted more international attention than Ukrainian films. A pity, considering the amazing contribution of Ukraine to the history of cinema, one of the first to count women among its most recognized filmmakers. Let’s start with, for instance, Larisa Shepitko (1938-1979), whose 1966 Krylya (Wings) told the story of a much–decorated female fighter pilot of World War II. Or the amazing and avant–garde Kira Muratova, born in 1934, who kept defeating not only censorship in the Soviet Union but also every supposed rule applicable to cinema. Thankfully, she’s still making movies.

Two male directors confirmed the challenging vitality of Ukrainian cinema during the last Cannes festival. The first one, Sergei Loznitsa, is an experienced and world recognized filmmaker. A specialist of cybernetics who graduated from Kiev Polytechnic Institute as a mathematician before realizing “what was truly serious and important in life: literature, history and cinema”. He chose to make movies. The second one, 40-year–old Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, won three awards at the Semaine de la critique with his very first feature. Most of the people who saw The Tribe agreed it was the most powerful Cannes movie.

Apart from their citizenship, both directors share a unique talent: offering the audience an overwhelming cinematic experience without using words.

Maidan – Sergei Loznitsa

From December 2013 to March 2014, Loznitsa stationed his camera at the center of Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti – aka Independence Square – the ground zero for the Ukrainian revolution that eventually ousted pro–Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. No opportunism has to be seen in this gesture, since documenting the world around him has always been Loznitsa’s main body of work. However, it’s his two and only fictions – 2010's My Joy and 2012's In the fog – that earned him the honours of Cannes official competition.

Things begin peacefully. Crowds in the square intone patriotic songs, poems and speeches in a quasi–carnival atmosphere. People are coming and going and it’s beautiful to observe a sense of commonality linking the participants. The turning point occurs on 19 January with the introduction by the government of the repressive Anti–Protest Laws. After that, tensions escalate exponentially, guns are turned on the crowd, over one hundred people die, others go mysteriously missing and many more are injured.

Using exclusively long, static takes, Loznitsa captures how a demonstration becomes a revolution. In other words, how the political power created its own uncontrollable monster by stirring disappointment, exhaustion and rage.

Loznitsa isn’t the first director to use his skills to register social change. A lot of his more or less professional colleagues recently did it during the Arab Spring. But if those films achieve to testify in the moment, most of them won’t date. Loznitsa’s method is radically different from that usually adopted by directors who work, shoot and edit in the wake of an historic event: his documentary is plotless, with no focus on particular players, no interpolation of TV news or activist footage, no voice over and no comment at all. In that sense, it’s an abstract meditation on crowds, movement, noise and determination that refuses to interpret a heavy situation (although editing is obviously a form of interpretation). As an introduction to this movie, Loznitsa only says, “I give you Maidan. I give you: Ukraine,” letting the viewer ultimately decide on the outcome.

The Tribe – by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy isn’t a complete beginner, since he already directed six short films, two of them nominated for Golden Bear at the Berlinale Film Festival. His first full-length feature, The Tribe, is the most ambitious take on a dysfunctional society Cannes had to offer. Not only because the film was entirely in sign language, with no spoken dialogue and no subtitles, but because it dares to challenge the viewers and forbids them from staying passive on their seats. Despite not a word being spoken, The Tribe’s narrative is utterly clear.

Young Sergey’s (Grigory Fesenko) new boarding school for the deaf looks like any regular high school at the beginning, until all the sympathetic professors suddenly disappear from the screen, except the woodwork teacher who appears to be head of a prostitution operation. The whole school is actually a platform for crime, ruled by King, the most violent kid of these hooligan youngsters.

“For me, the main goal was to make more realistic, natural silent film, which would be easily understood without words. Nowadays there are a lot of films, which you can just listen” – Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy

After a nasty period of hazing, Sergey is finally accepted as a foot soldier in the gang and asked to work as a pimp for two female boarders who prostitute themselves with truck drivers at night, secretly hoping to earn enough money and contacts to leave for Italy. Sergey falls for one of them, Anna (Yana Novikova), and starts a very sexual affair that the director captures in the crudest manner, with the same intensity that he uses to make any body language universally readable. (By the way, the young actress was completely against appearing nude on screen until Slaboshpytskiy convinced her to watch Blue Is The Warmest Colour that was playing in Kiev and she became Adele Exarchopoulos's number one fan.)

“This is an homage to silent film, where actors were communicating through pantomime,” Slaboshpytskiy explained to Positif writer Ariane Allard. “Such movies are produced almost every year from now on but all works I've seen are following the silent movie stylisation. For me, the main goal was to make more realistic, natural silent film, which would be easily understood without words. Nowadays there are a lot of films to which you can just listen. On the other hand, there are films where all actors stay silent all the time. But now, with The Tribe, I've found another path. Sign language is like a dance, ballet or kabuki theatre, but there's no grotesque because people are communicating that way for real.”

A movie doesn’t need words to be noisy; it's just another revolutionary statement.

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