Film & Cinema29th April 2015

Deaf Actors Excel in Emotive Silent Movie - The Tribe

Described as disturbing, brutal and brilliant, The Tribe rocket launches career of Deaf actress Yana Novikova

by Sarah Lawrence, Editor

Seldom in history has a group of Deaf people taken the hearing world by storm, but that is exactly what happened when the film, The Tribe hit the Cannes Film Festival last year. One of the most thought provoking films to be released in the last twelve months, The Tribe has an all Deaf cast and is dialogue free. Receiving widespread critical acclaim, the film rocketed lead actress, Yana Novikova, into the limelight, and at SLFirst we were delighted to conduct an exclusive interview with this thoughtful and talented young woman.

Just 21 years of age, Yana was born in the village of Zhuravichi, near Belarussk in Ukraine. Yana is believed to have been born with hearing but became Deaf when she was 2 weeks old. “My mother considers that I was poisoned through water from a well in which there were nitrates”, Yana explained, “the treatment I had through antibiotics caused my deafness.” Yana’s younger sister also became Deaf during early childhood.

Going to a boarding school for children who were Deaf or Hard of Hearing aged 6, Yana and her family could hardly have foreseen that 15 years later she would be starring in such a successful and thought-provoking film. Artistic in school, Yana started to learn about acting and performance there, as well as getting access to the sign language that would be central to the film and her character.

Thoughtful and knowledgeable about the Deaf cultural use of sign language, Yana promotes the importance of Deaf people having a language that they can use easily when talking to people within their own community. “It is important for Deaf people to be able to communicate using sign language,” Yana told me. “It is the same as hearing people having a spoken language, our world needs something different.”

Graduating from school, Yana went to nearby Gomel, where she enrolled in the College of Engineering. However, after studying for a year, she realised that the course was not for her. “I always dreamed of becoming an actress,” she recalled. “From the first time I saw the movie Titanic, I fell in love with the heroine of the film and wanted to become like her.”

Learning of an opportunity for Deaf actors through the Ukrainian Society of the Deaf at the Kiev Theatre Academy, Yana dropped out of college to pursue her dream of being an actress. Attending the auditions, Yana was not accepted onto the Academy programme, but director Miroslav Slaboshpytskiv, present at the auditions to look for actors for his film, ‘The Tribe’, invited Yana to audition for his film. 

Initially disappointed with the Academy decision, Yana went to the auditions for The Tribe in a positive mind set. “I went to the auditions afraid of nothing,” she beamed. “I felt ready for it and I decided to be courageous throughout.”

Reported as eclipsing all of the participants at the auditions, Yana was invited to take part in the pilot shooting for the film. Although at that stage she had not been offered the role officially in the film, she moved into rental apartments in Kiev for three months. Revelling in the opportunity but desperate to excel in the role, Yana demonstrated her desire to everyone, getting rid of anything that might be a distraction to her, including breaking up with her boyfriend. She also went on a weight loss programme, worked incredibly hard in the gym and spent hour after hour watching movies that the director had suggested to her were useful to her.

​​“I was officially given the role in September 2013, but at that stage they didn’t allow us to read the storyline in full,” Yana recollected. “I agreed for the sake of the acting opportunity and the film. It was afterwards that I learned that my role was complex and difficult, but I overcame my worries and stayed with the role.”

Containing a challenging storyline and explicit sex scenes, I asked Yana what she thought of the storyline. “I think our movie is very strong, unique and successful. It is a powerful story of love and hatred. The new guy Sergey goes to a new school where he falls in love with Anna (my role).  Anna was working as a prostitute and is raising money to go abroad. Sergey fights for her love and wants to remain with Anna forever. This movie is meaningful, and despite being acted using Ukrainian sign language it isn’t subtitled and there are no words. This makes it unusual. I like the way the way the Director, Miroslav, came up with the idea and created the film.”

“I think our film is so successful because it is such a strong storyline and because of the unique way we act it out. I am so happy that it has picked up so many awards.”

Travelling around the world to film festival after film festival or to promote the film, Yana has been surprised by the success but has relished in the experiences that has given her. Just back from a trip to Japan, she told me, “I have been shocked by our success, and I still can’t believe that it is winning awards. I was with Miroslav in Cannes when we won three awards and I cried on stage when we went to collect them. It made me so happy, I have a soul as light as a flower!”

Needless to say, Yana’s life has been something of a whirlwind since The Tribe has become such a big global hit. Excitedly, she said, “Before the movie I was just an ordinary girl with dreams. Since its launch I have seen the world and have been treated like a star. It feels like life has changed and it is like a fairytale or magic.”

As her recent experience promoting the launch of the film on the 18th April in Japan has shown, The Tribe is still being newly released, the storyline and signed communication captivating new audiences around the world. I was delighted to learn that it is being aired in Chapter, Cardiff, one of Europe's largest and most dynamic arts centres on the 15th to the 21st May, so I am able to go and see it. 

Talking through two interpreters to a journalist in Japan about the film, Yana explained how Deaf people often communicate amongst themselves. “In the world of the unhearing, it’s so important to say exactly what you mean, because we may not get a chance to correct ourselves. We learn not to waste time, to really value relationships, cooperate and hone our communication skills,” she explained.

For Yana, the global success is keeping her busy travelling and promoting the film, but she has ambitions to do more films and perhaps ultimately to be a Director herself. Culturally Deaf, Yana understands many of the issues Deaf people face in wider society, but she does not let that get in the way of her career. She believes The Tribe helps people understand more about deafness as audiences find a way to understand and follow the storyline. As a Deaf BSL user, it will be interesting to see what I make of the Ukrainian Sign Language and to what extent I can follow what is going on.

Living her dream and realising her ambitions, Yana is thoughtful and considerate of other Deaf youngsters. “My advice to Deaf youngsters around the world is to have a dream and then pursue it. If you realise your dream, your destiny will change incredibly.”

Warning - Explicit Images Below

So what about the film, The Tribe, itself. Is this something you should be rushing out to see. I think that depends on your character, as judging by the critic’s comments, this is not for the feint hearted. Nor will watching The Tribe leave you feeling happy and contented at the end, it will leave you instead, thoughtful for many days to come. This film is not for everyone as this critic clearly shows:

“The film comes off as a cynical stylistic exercise in combining a handicap with brutal violence and degrading sex for pure “transgressive” shock value.”

However, negative comments from the film critics are far outweighed by the positives, most of them ‘getting' what the Director was trying to portray.  The film has been described as:

“Compelling, upsetting, brutal and brilliant, The Tribe is one of the best works of cinema of the year - a familiar template recreated in what, for most, will be an entirely new world.”

Another said:

“Actions, emotions and desperate impulses speak far louder than words in The Tribe, a formally audacious coup de cinema that marks a stunning writing-directing debut for Ukrainian filmmaker.”

This film is not for the faint-hearted and it features some of the most violent scenes ever seen in a movie. It is raw and powerful and therefore challenging, but for many this also made it compelling. This is a story of love, a story of wanting to fit in and despite all the health warnings, I will be first in the queue to see it. 

Yana Novikova is a delightful young lady, and through a silent signed performance and with the rest of the Deaf cast, I want to see how they have evoked such strong feelings and emotions amongst battle hardened hearing film critics. Ultimately, I might not enjoy it, I am not a great lover of blood and violence, but I think I will be deeply moved by it. I will enter the cinema for viewing with this description in mind:

“What we see is the most bare of human emotions and experiences on display: humans as animals, with sex and violence playing a prominent role in the food chain – even in a boarding school of youth. It’s a terrifying reminder of what we are all capable of if pushed too far.”

With many thanks to Yana Novikova for taking the time to be interviewed by me.

Article by Sarah Lawrence, Editor

posted in Entertainment / Film & Cinema

29th April 2015