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.