The premise is almost definitely unprecedented: a movie about a group of troubled young deaf students done entirely in sign language and with no subtitles.
But such is the setup of “The Tribe,” a Ukrainian drama directed by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky that took the Critics’ Week Grand Prize and a slew of smaller prizes at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for its ingenuity and daring. (It was so acclaimed, later on there was an uproar when Ukraine failed to nominate the movie for consideration for best foreign film at the Academy Awards.)
Grigoriy Fesenko plays Serhiy, a teenager who’s swept into an institutional system of corruption — robbery and prostitution being the crimes of choice — when he arrives at a provincial boarding school. Serhiy goes along with the mob mentality, but he happens to fall in love with one of the girls he’s supposed to be pimping out. How could he not? She is played by 21-year-old Yana Novikova, a doll-faced Belarus native who’d never acted before landing the lead role.
On a recent morning, Novikova is settled in an upstairs office at New York’s Film Forum, which will show “The Tribe” starting Wednesday until the end of June before the distinguished foreign film distributor Drafthouse Films releases it in art house theaters around the country.
It’s her first trip to the Big Apple, and with the help of two translators (one who can convert her International Sign Language to American Sign Language and one who can turn that into spoken word), Novikova describes her planned tour of Manhattan, with stops at favorite tourist destinations like the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Times Square.
“All sorts of famous landmarks from the movies,” she says.
Novikova has been interested in acting since she was a girl, when, like with many of her peers, “Titanic” made a strong impression. She applied to a drama program for the deaf in the Ukraine, and though she wasn’t accepted, it put her on the radar of director Slaboshpitsky, who reached out to her and personally asked her to audition for “The Tribe.”
“Honestly, when I went for the audition, I didn’t expect anything to come out of it,” she says. “After tryouts, one of the directors walked up to me and he gave me two thumbs up — as in good — and you know, he was talking to me in Russian. I didn’t understand him, but nonetheless he gave me two thumbs up.”
That universal gesture was a harbinger of sorts; she received a call the following week that she was cast. At the time, Novikova knew very little about the role. “When I arrived he told me that I had to be a prostitute, I thought, Oh, you know, it’s not going to be a big deal. I’ll just be in different scenes being a prostitute, going to school, doing this, doing that,” she says. “Then it became very visual.”
The scenes in “The Tribe” would be tough for any seasoned actor, let alone someone in her first role. Novikova credits Slaboshpitsky’s wife Elena, a film producer, for talking her through those days of filming, as well as for recommending educational viewing like “Blue is the Warmest Color,” the acclaimed lesbian drama that conquered Cannes in 2013.
Not that it ever really came easily. “[At first] I thought he wanted some sort of porn film going on,” she says. “And then I thought, ‘OK, well let’s start with my hair covering my breasts.’ And the director said, ‘Okay, good start’… You know, it was tough for me, it was a big challenge. I struggle with that, the nudity aspect.”
And it wasn’t only the nudity that proved to be a challenge. “The character was tough for me too because she was mean, dark, and just, really, an ugly character,” she says. “I couldn’t really find any qualities that I could hold on to, but it was my responsibility to become [her].”
The shoot too proved to be difficult: A six-month slog in Kiev that was at times delayed by heavy snowfall.
“I didn’t have any breaks where I was able to go back home with my family. I really had to focus and stay in character throughout our time,” the actress says. “Even when I would hang out with other cast members, it was the same people so really there was no break from them to be able to be myself outside of my role.”
It’s to the credit of Novikova and the rest of the actors that despite the absence of subtitles or voiceover, “The Tribe” is a bracing viewing experience, one that forces one to pay full attention instead of rummaging around the popcorn bucket or stealing glances at one’s Instagram. Unlike “Children of a Lesser God,” the 1986 drama that won Marlee Matlin an Oscar (she was also 21 then), the actors in “The Tribe” must convey incredible depth of character and emotion with just their body language.
And Novikova can’t seem to believe her good fortune. She would still like to go to acting school one day, but says she’s got two projects coming up that will have her working with hearing actors, which she says she is “looking forward to.” It occurs to her that just a few years ago, she would have wide-eyed conversations with her mother in their southeastern town of Gomel.
“I asked my mom, ‘When I grow up, can I be an actress?’” she recalls. All signs point to yes.