The pol­i­tics be­hind the great­est Ukrainian film you haven’t heard of

My­roslav Sla­bosh­pyt­skiy talks to Don­ald Clarke about his odd and com­pelling crit­i­cal sen­sa­tion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

My­roslav Sla­bosh­pyt­skiy’s lat­est film The Tribe is not the eas­i­est sell. A sen­sa­tion in Cannes last year, it for­swears sub­ti­tles and voiceover as it goes among the stu­dents at a school for the deaf in Ukraine. If you don’t un­der­stand sign­lan­guage you won’t fol­low the dia­logue. Heck, if you don’t un­der­stand Ukrainian sign lan­guage, you’ll have trou­ble.

“Le Fi­garo in France wrote a very nice re­view and then they sent a writer who un­der­stood French sign lan­guage to see it,” Sla­bosh­pyt­skiy says. “And she said she could un­der­stand about 20 per cent. It was the same in Bri­tain I be­lieve.”

None of this has stopped the film from be­com­ing a crit­i­cal sen­sa­tion around the world. The Tribe, for all its odd­ness, tells a chill­ing story with great lu­cid­ity. We fol­low a new stu­dent as, ini­tially ner­vous and ret­i­cent, he be­comes a force in the crime ring or­gan­ised by his school­mates. To add to the ec­cen­tric­ity, The Tribe is com­posed of hugely long takes that re­quired weeks of re­hearsal. Non-pro­fes­sional deaf ac­tors play the young peo­ple.

“It sounds like a joke,” he laughs. “But it some­how be­came the most cel­e­brated Ukrainian film since the be­gin­ning of cinema, since the Lu­mière broth­ers.”

A large, bearded man with a bleak, wry sense of hu­mour, Sla­bosh­pyt­skiy, now 40, has worked as a re­porter, scriptwriter and cine­matog­ra­pher. Var­i­ous short films won awards at var­i­ous fes­ti­vals. As long as 20 years ago he had the idea for The Tribe, but it re­quired an in­ge­nious, determined pro­ducer to bring it to fruition. So, why did he make life so dif­fi­cult for him­self? What was the seed to the story?

“For me it was never an op­tion to make the film with sub­ti­tles,” he says. “The con­cept was clear. It was to be like a mod­ern si­lent film. I saw a num­ber of deaf ac­tors over the years and I al­ways thought: thank god they didn’t have an idea to make the same film them­selves. Ha, ha. There were some crit­ics in France who ob­jected to no sub­ti­tles. They said it showed lack of re­spect. I was very cross at that. You don’t go to a ballet and ex­pect them to read the li­bretto to you.”

So what about the ex­tra­or­di­nary length of the takes? So sprawl­ing are the shots that the film takes on the qual­ity of a linked se­ries of short(ish) films. The chore­og­ra­phy alone must have taken weeks. Ac­tors weave be­tween trucks, sprint down cor­ri­dors, move from room to room. The cam­era fol­lows tire­lessly.

“We wanted this film to feel as if we were ob­serv­ing life in this board­ing school,” he says. “When I was film­ing, I wasn’t pre­pared to an­swer this ques­tion. But you are asked and you de­velop an an­swer. We have no ver­bal dia­logue, so we don’t need to change the cam­era point of view for that. This makes the viewer feel like a par­tic­i­pant as the cam­era fol­lows. It is as Hitch­cock said: the au­di­ence are voyeurs.”

Some em­bar­rass­ment

The Tribe looked like the only film the coun­try’s cinema nabobs could se­lect as sub­mis­sion for the best for­eign lan­guage pic­ture Os­car. As Sla­bosh­pyt­skiy says (with some em­bar­rass­ment), no pic­ture in Ukraine’s his­tory has been so cel­e­brated. Yet, when the time came, Oles Sanin’s much more ob­scure The Guide found it­self on the ap­pli­ca­tion form. There were im­me­di­ate mut­ter­ings about cor­rup­tion. Given the cur­rent trou­bled state of the na­tion, you could be for­given for sus­pect­ing that po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences were to blame. Not so, it seems.

“There were let­ters writ­ten to the Os­car com­mit­tee from Cannes ex­plain­ing how the film would be pro­moted,” he says with a weary sigh. “But the film that was se­lected was made by a close friend of the act­ing prime min­is­ter. I am not stat­ing that this in­flu­enced the de­ci­sion of the Os­car com­mit­tee. But that’s how it was.”

He sug­gests cer­tain in­di­vid­u­als who had in­flu­ence on the de­ci­sion had a fi­nan­cial in­ter­est in the suc­cess of The Guide. All very murky. All very sus­pi­cious. “Maybe that would be con­sid­ered cor­rup­tion in other places,” he snorts. “But in Ukraine that is not con­sid­ered cor­rup­tion.

We speak at the Jame­son Dublin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val a few days be­fore The Tribe is named best film by the Dublin Film Crit­ics Cir­cle. A dis­turb­ing tale that makes a virtue of its ec- cen­tric­ity, the pic­ture has opened doors ev­ery­where it has played. But Sla­bosh­pyt­skiy will ad­mit that he is not yet a hero in his home­land.

“Of course this is not Lord of the Rings,” he says. In Ukraine we have 350 screens. That is very few for a coun­try of 50 mil­lion.”

You’re telling me. It is fewer than we have in Ire­land.

“But 9,000 views still didn’t seem like very many. It’s good for a Ukrainian film. But not much bet­ter than that. I phoned my pro­ducer an and asked why we had so few and he said: ‘We are not com­pet­ing with Hol­ly­wood here; we are com­pet­ing with phil­har­mon­ics. The orches­tras are play­ing in the same place.’ ”

He laughs his dry, iron­i­cal laugh.

The Tribe is out now and is re­viewed on p10-11

The film that was se­lected for the Os­car was made by a close friend of the prime min­is­ter. In Ukraine that is not cor­rup­tion

Pain in Ukraine

Sla­bosh­pyt­skiy chiller failed to win Os­car se­lec­tion

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