How Sign-Language Thriller 'The Tribe' Became 2015's Most Intense Film

Inside story on Ukrainian drama about gangs in a school for the deaf that's left audiences speechless

Students prepare to teach one of their own a lesson in 'The Tribe.' The Ukrainian movie, about gangs in a school for the deaf, has been wowing audiences on the festival circuit.

It was only 100 feet away, but it may as well have been another universe. As a child growing up in Ukraine, filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy would walk to his classes every morning and observe the students who attended the school for the deaf across the street. As his classmates socialized with each other, the director would watch the other children from afar, fascinated by the sight of dozens of kids silently signing with each other.

"This way of communication looked like a miracle," Slaboshpytskiy says, calling from his home in Kiev. "[People] were directly exchanging feelings and emotions without words — and it really impressed me."

The 40-year-old filmmaker channeled those vivid memories into The Tribe, his brutal, bewildering debut feature centered on a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf, in a tale told entirely through sign language. The unique, unflinching thriller focuses on the school's teenage gang members who rob, rape and murder under the tutelage of a corrupt woodshop teacher. After one of the students — a pimp who oversees two teenage prostitutes from the school — is killed, new kid on campus Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) takes his place; problems arise when he falls in love with Anna (Yana Novikova), one of the escorts. (Coming full circle, Slaboshpytskiy used his actual elementary school as the film's main location.)

With no subtitles, translations or voiceovers to guide viewers, the film — which opens June 17 in New York — unravels like a puzzle, as certain plot points, stripped of initial comprehension, only reveal themselves in subsequent scenes. But where most people would see subtitles as an asset, for Slaboshpytskiy, they were pure distraction. "The concept was that people must understand it without the translation," he says. "It's one of the reasons why the audience is deeply involved in the story. [In other movies], you must always pay attention to the subtitles and you lose something from the image. It’s a very complicated way to watch a film."

The Tribe's conceit is more innovative and, consequently, more rewarding; viewers are forced to read seemingly inscrutable communication through body language, facial expressions and an aggressive blur of hands, constantly in motion. "When there are gestures, words are not necessary," Novikova, a deaf actress, says. "It isn't a necessity to have dialogue in film — everything is written on a face and all is visible in the movements. The main thing is human emotion — that's clear and understandable to any person in the world."

Producer-cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych notes the "hypnotic effect" the story has had on viewers, both at home and on the festival circuit, where it's been racking up awards. "When the audience does not hear speech, it is completely focused on the image and soon finds itself in a state of trance," he says.

For Slaboshpytskiy, this trance induction started as a film school assignment to direct a five-minute short film with no dialogue, sparking the techniques and ideas of what would become The Tribe. His 2009 "no-budget" 10-minute short, titled Deafness, was shot in one take and made for 300 Euros, allowing the filmmaker to test his audacious concept on a smaller scale. It also allowed the director, who doesn’t understand sign language, entry inside, as he puts it, "the deaf network." "I had a very nice connection with the Ukrainian Society of the Deaf," Slaboshpytskiy says. "They helped me with all the research and interviews. It's a fairly closed community, very suspicious of people who have hearing and can speak. It took a lot of time to earn their trust."

When it came time to fashion a story, Slaboshpytskiy drew on his earlier experiences as crime reporter in the Nineties — specifically, his coverage of the "deaf mafia," a group of town bosses who controlled various decisions within the insular community. With little social governmental services to aid the hearing-impaired, these Ukrainian capos would protect deaf citizens in their respective villages and solve a myriad of problems for a fee. "They have a parallel structure of society," the director says. "They have a boss in every city which controls the life of the community. I wanted to tell [that] story, on the youngest and lowest levels. . . so I put it inside a school.”

"It isn't a necessity to have dialogue in film. The main thing is human emotion — that's clear and understandable to any person in the world."

Slaboshpytskiy cast the film using only non-professional deaf actors employed through Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian social media, along with the help of "every principal of a deaf boarding school in [the region]." The gamble paid off: Like Larry Clark's Kids, the cast's lack of experience is an advantage, allowing the film to exude a hyper-realism virtually unobtainable with a more seasoned cast.

Despite the lack of verbal dialogue, Slaboshpytskiy wrote a full script, using interpreters to work with the cast on their lines. "If we were not satisfied how a sentence looked in sign language, we asked the actor, 'Can you [convey] the same thing in any different sign?'" the director says. For Novikova, the all-deaf cast also allows a marginalized group to be more visible in mainstream society. "Myroslav has done something to bring deaf people out of the shadows and to the public," she says.

That hardly means The Tribe is any inclusive, feel-good movie. Stripped of dialogue, the film relies on pronounced sound effects to heighten vicious scenes of a teenage pimp being run over by a truck and several students being brutally beaten; a harrowing sequence involving a home abortion caused a viewer at the Milwaukee Film Festival to pass out during a screening. "The filming [of the abortion] lasted the whole day," Novikova says of the latter scene.  "For every take, it was necessary for me to endure anew this pain, to cry, and give out the necessary emotion. By the end, I was absolutely exhausted."

Slaboshpytskiy showed his young cast Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs and Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris to prepare for the film’s explicit sex scenes. And like the most graphic arthouse films — think Irreversible or Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom — the director never allows the viewer to get too comfortable, forsaking subtlety for a cinematic EpiPen to the chest.

But despite the film's frequent brutality, there's a near-balletic grace in the cast's hand and body movements — an homage, Slaboshpytskiy says, to the silent film stars of the early 20th century and the pantomime that influenced that era’s comedies. "It looks like the childhood of the cinema," he says. "When the movies were born, they relied on an absolutely universal language. I wanted to make something really wild and fresh."

Since its 2014 debut at Cannes Film Festival, The Tribe has received critical accolades at nearly every festival it's been screened, with the film achieving the same near-universal acclaim regardless of country. "Somebody joked that it was a nice marketing idea," Slaboshpytskiy says. "You can show the film in the same condition in different parts of the world and not change a thing. People who speak different languages, live in different countries and come from different cultures are watching it — and they’re all having the exact same experience."