The sign language film we can’t stop thinking about

Watch a clip from Ukrainian silent thriller The Tribe, that shows the deaf community like you’ve never seen

Presented entirely in sign language without subtitles, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s “silent” thriller The Tribe will challenge your understanding of cinema – and also how you view humanity. The Ukrainian director’s gripping debut swept up prizes at Cannes and London Film Festival with good reason. Set at a boarding school for deaf children, the pupils have established their own criminal hierarchy and business prostituting female students to local truckers. It all goes to plan, until a newcomer falls in love and sends the system spiralling into ambitiously choreographed chaos. It’s nightmare-inducing, distressingly poignant, and all conveyed through hand gestures. There’s nothing else remotely like it.

What drew you to making a silent, unsubtitled film?

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy: 
Since my first year of film school, I’d had the idea to shoot in the way silent movies were made. Throughout history, plenty of movies have paid homage to silent movie, but only in terms of style. The way I’ve done it is to use the spirit of silent movies: it’s absolutely detached with no borders, just as it used to be when cinema was beginning and searching for its way.

By stripping away dialogue, it feels like you’ve exposed human beings as a naked core of desperation and cruelty.

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy: That’s how I felt, too. By removing the verbal components of how civilisation works, we got rid of all the barriers and constructs, and exposed human nature in this prehistoric way. It’s no coincidence the movie is called The Tribe.

“By removing the verbal components of how civilisation works, we got rid of all the barriers and constructs, and exposed human nature in this prehistoric way” – Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy

What’s been the reaction from the deaf community? Especially in Ukraine.

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy: While we applaud by clapping our hands, deaf people make this gesture [waves hands in air]. When you get to the stage and see this gesture, you know there are deaf people in the audience. With regards to the Ukrainian deaf community, I became friendly with the senior members of their deaf society. They helped us hugely at casting, but got scared when they read the script because they feared it could portray them in the wrong way.

But when the movie screened at Cannes, we reconciled. They got the message that it was very significant Cannes Film Festival screened a movie played by deaf actors – deaf people became internationally recognised and received awards. For the deaf community, it was a matter of pride.

How different is it working with deaf actors?

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy: The deaf community is very inward. They don’t easily trust outsiders, compared to members of their own community. But we overcame this barrier, and the actors trusted us. There were some funny moments. When somebody had to move away from the camera, and the camera stopped, you shout that they have to stop, but they don’t hear it. Some assistants come running after them to stop them. But they were just cute, funny incidents. Naturally, we used a sign language interpreter who translated everything, but it wasn’t that different.

I watched your short film Deafness, which also makes use of long takes. How did the idea evolve in your mind over the years?

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy: That short has quite a lot we later used for The Tribe. It’s one long shot for 11 minutes and filmed 30 metres away from the school we used. The actual script, I wrote in 2011. The main idea wasn’t about the story, but the concept of the movie. I always try to find the most organic method – if it feels organic on a project to use long shots, then I would use that. If it required an MTV style, I would happily use that as well.

Did you or the actors change the dialogue to make it more accessible to wider audiences?

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy: First, I had to write a treatment, and then the script. I was very conscious that it must be understood by audiences, otherwise no one would watch it to the end. When they were conveying lines in sign language, if I didn’t like it, I’d ask them to say the same thing with different gestures. That’s basically all we changed.

Were there any complications during filming?

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy: The most dangerous scene is when the pimp is run over by the truck. It’s not a stunt actor. It’s a real deaf person, and a real, very heavy lorry on a slippery surface. During the night, as well. Just to ensure safety, we needed one of the best stunt co-ordinators and seven stunt actors. We filmed it old-school style, and he was really hit by the vehicle. There were no digital computer enhancements. If a tiny bit went wrong, it’d be terrible, because it’s a 25-tonne lorry. We did eight takes – the eighth take was the best one, so we included it in the movie – and then the sun rose in the morning and we couldn’t film anymore. It was so stressful, literally within five minutes, the entire crew was drunk and smashed. Because I don’t drink, to relieve stress I just got in a car and started driving in circles around the car park.

How important was it to not include subtitles?

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy: For me, in this movie, subtitles would be as alien as going to see ballet dancers while some bloke by the stage reads a script. And also, nobody actually likes subtitles.

Will there ever be a subtitled version?

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy: Every distributor signs a contract where there’s a paragraph that says subtitles are strictly prohibited. Perhaps after my death. Actually, no, not even after my death.

The Tribe is out in cinemas Friday 15 May