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
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.”
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
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