The man’s busy. Our interview is double-booked with the 21st birthday party of The Tribe’s leading actress, Yana Novikova.
Slaboshpytskiy and his translator, Anton (dark suit, serious smile) greet me and I ask permission to record the interview. Anton considers for a moment and consents; Slaboshpytskiy shrugs: “Well, of course.”
“California recording law,” I mumble, and Slaboshpytskiy barks a laugh, short and uproarious.
Telling people you’re grabbing a drink with the director of a Ukrainian no-subtitle, no-soundtrack arthouse sign-language film is the kind of statement that, depending on the circle you run in, could get you summarily punched or vigorously laid. Or both.
The Tribe is a modern homage to silent film, set in a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf students, all the dialogue signed by a huge cast of non-professional deaf actors. It was the sweetheart of International Critics’ Week at Cannes this year.
The restaurant’s manager swings by to decant me a glass of Badoit, then tilts the bottle toward Slaboshpytskiy. “No,” Slaboshpytskiy says, laughing and eschewing the bottle with a wave of the hand. “Thank you, thank you.” His voice is gentle, almost deferential.
Does he know something about this water that I don’t?
This contradictory feedback turns out to be the quintessential Slaboshpytskiy move. Every short, well-maintained path I walk down to meet this man ends up ensnaring me in a thicket of apparent inconsistency.
At times he plays with this contradiction. He nods across the booth at the birthday girl, sitting beside me, and says of working with her: “She’s like a tank. But she looks like angel, of course.”
But often he leaves me guessing. I ask about his response to The Tribe’s overwhelmingly positive response from the international film community. Anton tries to translate, but Slaboshpytskiy cuts him off, repeating, I know, I know, in Russian.
“I think of course it was a big challenge.” He confers briefly with Anton about this word, challenge. It is the first word he has needed translated since we started talking. “We understood the film was a really big challenge and we work to do the interesting film, the very special film, but in other case it can be very epic fail. But I think it was big film. I think I will be untrue if I tell you I was thinking, Oh I was scared about the film.”
His cell phone buzzes on the table and he asks whether he may answer. There’s nobody on the other end.
“Prank call,” I suggest, and he chuckles, delighted, ha ha ha ha.
He resets his face solemnly. “Okay, let us continue.”
One of the most notable features of The Tribe is the fullness of the screen. There are often half a dozen or more bodies in the frame, secondary characters and extras engaged in action and conversation that are—thanks to long shots and the physical logistics of sign language—as compelling and loud to the audience as the main drama. You could track the pupil movements of an entire audience and find no two sets of eyes that volleyed around the screen in the same pattern—but ask that audience to recount the narrative, and they’d all tell you the same story.
He explains away the prestidigitation: “In order to make the understanding better, we use some cliché. It was very, very simple construct of dramaturgy. Foreigner will come to the small city on the wild, wild west and there is a wild bunch inside the small city. He loves the girlfriend of the main gun and they travel and have battle. It’s very easy.”
This summary of The Tribe is—in primo Slaboshpytskiy style—both accurate and supremely terrible. Thematic simplicity isn’t really the mot juste for a film that includes—but does not even climax on—a several-minute real-time full-frontal shot of a young woman’s abortion, scored to the syncopated clinking of scalpel against speculum and the dry, ravaged scream-sobs of a teenage girl.
I object to the idea that there was any ease involved in the process. He agitates the air with his hands, like he’s kneading our two ideas together. “My teacher in the theatrical school told me that Shakespeare has an absolutely great place because his plays are empty. You can take the plays and put the different characters inside.” Slaboshpytskiy narrows his eyes to see if I follow. When he sees that I do, he laughs. “Of course, I am not the Shakespeare.”
Yana Novikova, the angelic tank, describes to me the rigors of her character. As Novikova signs, her face is an exquisite tempest, gliding through an arpeggio of intense emotion, from shock to anger to fear to resolve and, finally, pride and happiness.
Novikova signs to an International Sign Language translator, who translates to an American Sign Language interpreter, who—after a lengthy process of rapid signing and double-checking—speaks the answers aloud to me. The whole time, Novikova watches the International Sign Language translator anxiously, nodding when she’s being portrayed correctly, and often jumping in with small flurries of correction.
“It was difficult,” the ASL signer eventually translates. “I gave up some things. Because it was my first movie, and for me to just rip off my clothes right at the very beginning—I didn’t have any type of warm-up or anything. But, for example, if you go stand at the edge of a waterfall, you’re looking over and you’re standing there and standing there and trying to get the courage to jump off. But once you do it, from any time thereon after it’s easier to jump off that waterfall.”
I look back at Novikova, but the emotions are just a memory. I think of the rigmarole of this interview, the logistics of her expression finally culminating in a leap of faith that she’s being captured accurately. It’s impossible not to compare this process to her role in the film—poignant and brutal, every thought broadcast with aching clarity.
Casting was an involved international process, conducted largely through social media. Slaboshpytskiy explains: “We didn’t ever write the script, to be clear, but I think [in casting] we were looking at each of [the actors] personally, individually, and then we were choosing a role for them in the script. But they had their own personality. With their own personality they filled in the actual character in the movie.”
And lo, the contradiction melts into complication. The film is irreducible because we see life onscreen, we bear witness to a small section of unspooled humanity. The intense commitment of background characters to their own narratively unimportant struggles—the film’s 300 characters comport themselves like 300 individual protagonists. That the film focuses only on a small handful does not diminish the dignity of the rest, the richness of the world they inhabit.
I follow this thread, asking whether this desire to show character, completely, is what motivated the film’s grab you by the throat and defy you to look away aesthetic—unflinching and lengthy takes that seem to begin and end with an unrushed dream-logic. In one standout sequence, a young man ransacks a shop room, seeking hidden money. We follow him for upwards of five minutes.
“It’s not enough to talk about just specific elements like a long shot,” he says. “This whole thing together has a hypnotic effect on me. There are many different elements: there’s no verbal speech, long takes, long shots, we didn’t change the point of view of camera, there’s always a moving camera and special sound, and everything in compilation helps the film work, I think.”
And then the thing happens. The uncomplicated thing, simple and sweet. Slaboshpytskiy speaks slowly and precisely, slipping seamlessly between English and Russian: “I didn’t think about it when I shooted it. I just shooted how I feel because I do not like to explain something for myself. When I film I try to use my feelings and emotions.” He cross-examines his translator and nods, satisfied: “Intuition. If I can explain it to myself using words when I’m doing something, then it’s wrong.”
I want to stay here, in this moment of dreaminess and clarity. I think that, having navigated through the Slaboshpytskiy switchbacks, we’ve finally arrived together at a great valley of wisdom, of some sort of beautiful peace.
And he does let us remain there, if only for a moment. “Sometimes I’m happy,” he says, gesturing toward his face, alert, thoughtful, tired. “Sometimes I’m grumpy with my agent or something like that. I’m tired or I have bad seats on the flight to L.A., for example. But this is—I don’t know—it’s happiness you’re looking at.”