‘The Tribe’ Is a Movie Starring Deaf People That’s Not a Deaf Movie
We caught up with actress Yana Novikova to talk about starring in the groundbreaking new film, growing up deaf in Belarus, and Kate Winslet's sex scene in 'Titanic.'
A still from 'The Tribe' (2014). Courtesy of Drafthouse Films
When I first heard that The Tribe had been sweeping awards at festivals worldwide, I was skeptical. The film, written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, is set in a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf and made exclusively in Ukrainian Sign Language (USL). I was intrigued, but assumed people's excitement had more to do with the novelty of sign language than any merit of the actual film. I expected remarks on how "inspiring" it is to see deaf people acting, the way hearing people often declare themselves inspired when a deaf person does something they deem "normal."
Then I watched the film. The plot is simple—a new student, Sergey (Grigory Fesenko), arrives at boarding school and finds himself inducted into an organized crime ring run by the students and teachers. When Sergey falls for the leader's girlfriend (Yana Novikova), the group's power structures are threatened and chaos ensues. The film is explicit in its sexual and violent content—it's the first time I can remember feeling nauseous from watching a movie.
Watch an exclusive clip from 'The Tribe':
Cinematically, Slaboshpytskiy's long takes and wide-angle shots, often of the characters from afar or behind, highlight Sergey's, and our, outsider status from this tight-knit tribe. And nothing furthers this sensation than the shock of watching the film without subtitles—neither subtitles nor voiceover are available. As the movie progresses, though, a tension grows from this same viewing experience. Audience members, who witness USL dialogue but cannot understand it, must learn new ways of extracting meaning from facial expressions and body language, getting a small taste of what it feels like to be a deaf person in a hearing world.
While Nina Raine's successful deaf-centric off-Broadway play Tribes is made for hearing people, with signed or deaf-accented dialogue projected across the stage and a sound design the New York Times called "crucial" to the play's emotional impact, The Tribe is arguably made for no one. Sign language is not universal, the number of native Ukrainian Sign Language users is relatively small, and the film is often shot so not even people who would understand the dialogue can see the nuance of what's being said.
As a Deaf person, I found the film difficult at the start—it was hard for me to watch people signing and not understand what they were saying. Interestingly, hearing reviewers seem convinced they've understood perfectly. And while, yes, I too followed the plot and relationships between the characters, it seems presumptive to assume a full understanding without knowledge of the dialogue. Hearing people say this in part, I think, because sign languages require body and facial movement as components of their grammar, and these movements are often congruous with natural facial and body responses to an emotion or concept. The other part is just run-of-the-mill audism—I don't think they'd say it after watching a movie in an unfamiliar spoken language sans subtitles.
Slaboshpytskiy has said in interviews that this work is homage to the old silent movies. But The Tribe is not a silent movie—not in the way Chaplin's films are. People are speaking a real, complete language; it's just that Slaboshpytskiy and most of his viewers cannot understand it. No one would watch a spoken Russian film with the sound turned off and without subtitles and call that a silent movie. It's undeniable that USL works within a visio-spacial modality. Still, whether The Tribe is viewed as a hearing person's exploitation of the nature of sign language, or accepted as a filmic experiment, I expect will vary across the Deaf community.
For me, what sets this film apart is the fact that the deaf people here are people first. Unlike Hollywood-style appropriations, the actors are all Deaf, and each of their characters is fully-realized, functioning member of society, albeit a dysfunctional one. No inspiration porn here (though at times the film verges on actual porn—there are numerous sex scenes as well as a particularly brutal home-abortion scene). The film's explicit nature shows viewers the human side of deaf people, at their most raw and carnal—that is, the place where they are the same as their hearing audience.
I caught up with The Tribe's leading lady, Yana Novikova, in Brooklyn during a few minutes of downtime in what seemed to be a whirlwind US tour. Here, too, the notion of insider/outsiderness was evident—we communicated via Maleni Chaitoo, a Deaf interpreter who knows both American Sign Language (ASL) and International Sign (IS), a manufactured sign language much like Esperanto. The three of us, hailing from diverse backgrounds and life experiences, found ourselves united in silence.
VICE: I've seen you mention Blue Is the Warmest Color as a movie that inspired you as an actor, but are there other films or TV shows that influenced your acting?
Yana Novikova: Well, I saw Titanic when I was a little girl, and that was the movie that first made me feel like, "I want to be an actor!"
How old were you?
Six. [We riff for a moment on the different ways to say the number six in the four sign languages we have between us.] So I was a little kid and watched the movie with my mom, and I was completely fascinated. And I remember saying afterward to my mom, "I want to be an actress like that when I grow up!" And my parents just kind of looked at me and said, "Well, it'd be impossible for you to be in movies. There won't be any work because you're deaf." And I was disappointed, like, "Really!?" But at that point I kind of accepted it, that my options were limited. As time went on I continued to watch and enjoy lots of different kinds of movies—comedy, drama, everything.
When I got involved with The Tribe and realized there would be some explicit sex scenes, I felt awkward and nervous about it; I didn't want to expose myself in that way. So I talked with Miroslav and he recommended a bunch of movies to me, one of which was Blue Is the Warmest Color. And then it kind of hit me again—the women in that movie are so strong and brave and fully open and committed, and I knew I had that in me, so I felt inspired to keep going with acting and not give up. I went back to Miroslav and said, "OK, I can do it!" But initially I was kind of shocked by the prospect of being naked and thought about dropping out of the project.
'My parents just kind of looked at me and said, "Well, it'd be impossible for you to be in movies. There won't be any work because you're deaf."'
It's funny because I think of Titanic as having a kind of iconic sex scene in it, too. That sweaty hand on the window?
[Laughs] Yeah, I remember. Kate Winslet was also a strong leading woman, and I looked up to that even as a kid.
So what does your family think about you acting now that you've found such success?
Of course my family's very proud of me and very excited about the success of the movie. My parents are extra proud—my success is a rejoinder for them in a way. I come from a really old village [in Belarus], very small, and there's a lot of gossip, a lot of backstabbing, so when my mother gave birth to me, a deaf child, there was a lot of judgmental and pitying talk levied at my parents. They just ignored it, but obviously they were kind of seething about it internally. Now that I've gotten this exposure and the film has been such a huge success, people back home are all looking at me with amazement, so my family's been able to be like, "That's our daughter! So there!" They're very proud.
Watch our exclusive PSA for 'The Tribe' from Yana:
Obviously, most of the people who see this movie will not understand the dialogue. If you were going to give these people a hint, something they should know about the story or characters going in, what would it be?
I wouldn't want to give them one. But I would tell them that this movie will change the way they think. After you see it, it will be stuck in your head, really seared in there, and it will change the way you see things going forward.
Certainly true for me! I saw you say earlier while you were filming Vice Talks Film that one of your favorite scenes to make was the one where you and your roommate are changing your clothes and chatting in the back of the van on your way to, we find out shortly thereafter, your work as prostitutes. You mentioned you liked it because Miroslav didn't really write any dialogue at all and you got to do a lot of improv, which was freeing and empowering—that it was "enough" just to be you (or you as your character, at least). I really like this notion of the positive element of the director not knowing sign language—it makes the project in a way more collaborative. Do you think there are other ways the film would be different if the writer/director were deaf?
Oh, I think it would be a totally different film. Miroslav puts a lot of himself into the narrative and the creation of The Tribe —nobody else could make that movie. And everybody, deaf or hearing, has different perspectives and opinions they bring to a project; that's so clear particularly when you're dealing with the creative arts.
How are you finding the hearing world's response to the film overall?
The response to the film has been so diverse. Some people say it's beautiful; some people react like they've just been stabbed in the chest. Some people really connect with it—they say that they feel involved with the characters themselves. The responses have all been really different, like any film.
I've seen Miroslav say in interviews that part of the reason he was interested in making a movie like The Tribe was as homage, a "modern silent movie." But technically The Tribe isn't a silent movie sans dialogue—it's just in a language that most people don't know. What do you think?
Well, the old silent movies, they didn't have sound, but they did have subtitles, even just a word or two, to give the audience an idea of what was going on. But in The Tribe, audiences don't need that because that information is in-built into sign and to some extent visible to everybody. Also this movie doesn't look awkward like the old silent movies. Deaf people aren't restrained in their bodies—they show emotion in the way they move, in their facial expression, their eye contact. And the audience can follow that.
'It's not a Deaf movie, or about showing the difference between deaf and hearing—it's about human emotion and connection.'
So in a way film acting is a natural medium for Deaf people; it's intuitive.
Yes. Thinking about [a hearing viewer's experience] reminds me of reading a comic book. You look at the images you're given, and you try to interpret a deeper meaning from that, and all those frames together add up. [We laugh for a minute while acting out comic-book frames, and sound effects in speech bubbles. Yana mimes a person running with the word "Bam!" in a bubble behind her.]
As for deaf viewers, I've read contrasting views online—lots of people love the film and love seeing sign language onscreen, but some people feel like all the sex and violence is exploitative and presenting a negative view of the Deaf community, especially since the movie has done so well and might be some people's only cultural touchstone for deafness. What do you think?
Just like any creative art, I would expect deaf people to have differing opinions about the film—some people love it and some think it's disturbing, or feel like it doesn't reflect their own life experience. Some might even be jealous that they didn't get to be involved in the movie, since all of us were non-actors at the start. But actually what I think about the film is that reflects deaf and hearing experiences both. It's not a Deaf movie, or about showing the difference between deaf and hearing—it's about human emotion and connection.
Is there a question, about the film or otherwise, that you wish people would ask you?
Not really. Now that I've got some recognition people want to know everything about me and my private life. I feel like I've really opened up and showed them my guts, and there's not much left in there!
Are you sick of it, or not yet?
No, it's been interesting to see actually—I've talked to so many different people in different countries, but people from all over the world extract the same feelings and questions from the film.
I guess that goes to further prove its universal element.
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's The Tribe, starring Yana Novikova, is now playing in theaters across the country.
Sara Nović is the author of Girl at War (Random House, 2015). Follow her on Twitter.