All Sign Language, No Subtitles: Behind the Ukrainian Thriller That’s Changing How We Experience Cinema

"The Tribe" has no spoken dialogue at all—viewers must search for meaning through body language and emotion. This is why it works.

Anya (Yana Novikova) and two friends sign heatedly in Drafthouse Films’ The Tribe. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films.

Earlier this year, the social media movement #deaftalent was popularized after hearing actress Catalina Sandino Moreno starred as a deaf woman in the film Medeas. The casting choice angered many deaf artists and activists who criticized the decision to give a deaf role to a hearing actress.

Though successful films have featured deaf actors before, those characters are usually surrounded with hearing ones to provide familiar voices to the audience. In The Tribe, a new Ukrainian film from writer and director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, no such voice exists. The film’s actors use only physical expression, body language, and Ukrainian Sign Language—with no subtitles.

The Tribe opens with a young man on a street corner asking for directions, an appropriate beginning for a movie that disorients the audience from start to finish. Throughout each scene the viewer is forced to search for clues based on emotion and body language rather than speech.

The film’s actors use only physical expression, body language, and Ukranian Sign Language—with no subtitles.

The goal, says Slaboshpytskiy, was to create a film that can be understood and relatable to anyone who sees it, regardless of their hearing ability, language, or culture. 

“It’s not a film for deaf people, it’s for a hearing audience, but with deaf actors,” Slaboshpytskiy says. “Sex, love, violence, pain—it’s absolutely the same for all of humanity,”

The movie—set in a Ukrainian boarding school—is powerful, difficult, and at times emotionally compromising. “This is not a Disney movie,” Slaboshpytskiy explains.

But even with its difficult subject matter and experimental storytelling, The Tribe has played across the world. It has won dozens of awards and been heralded by film critics, audiences, and members of the deaf community since it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014.

I spoke with Slaboshpytskiy about why he chose to make a film about deaf people and how audiences—both hearing and deaf—have responded.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Christopher Zumski Finke: Why did you decide to make a film set in the deaf community?

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy: When I was a boy in school, on the opposite side of the way we had a deaf boarding school and I was always impressed by the way deaf people communicate with each other—with sign language. To me, it’s like a miracle. It’s the highest level of communication. They are directly speaking with feelings and emotions. Of course, the miracle must happen for reasons I cannot understand. The miracle only happens for people who can understand sign language.

In film school I thought it would be a nice idea to make a modern silent film, like in the childhood of cinema, when audiences in different countries could all understand without any translation. I thought then that a sign language film was a great idea, and after 20 years, I thought, "I think I can finally shoot this film."

Zumski Finke: You called it a modern silent film, but it’s not a deaf film. We can hear everything in the movie, but there is no spoken dialogue. Did you think about making it totally silent film?

Slaboshpytskiy: This is a speaking film. The characters in the film are speaking all the time, in sign language. In the old silent films, the Charlie Chaplin films, the actors were speaking. You just couldn’t hear it.

There’s no reason to hire a hearing person to play a deaf character.

This film is from the point of view of a person that can hear who is with deaf people. If you are with a deaf person, you will hear everything that happens around you—cars, wind, everything—you just won’t be able to pronounce the words because they’re in sign language. 

Zumski Finke: Tell me about the cast. Are they first-time actors?

Slaboshpytskiy: We are the first to make a film here in this way, so of course it was impossible to call a casting agency and ask for deaf actors in these special conditions. I shot a short film called Deafness before The Tribe. So I had a nice connection with the deaf community of Ukraine, and they really helped with the casting.

We held our casting in the Culture Center of Deaf Society. We had two auditions per month, and we shared our information every way we could. We used social networks and websites—deaf people can be very enthusiastic users of social networks because on social networks there is no border between us and them. I spoke with the principal of every deaf school in Ukraine. About 300 came to audition, from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy

Photo of Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, courtesy of Drafthouse Films.

Zumski Finke: How have deaf audiences reacted to the film?

Slaboshpytskiy: They love the film. When I represent the film in different countries, all around the globe, they love the film.

The deaf acting community is always battling with studios in America because studios will hire a hearing people to play a deaf person. At the MOMA screening of The Tribe in New York, a deaf actor came up and told me this is a very important film. It shows that deaf actors are as capable as hearing actors, and that there’s no reason to hire a hearing person to play a deaf character.

Of course I see a few negative comments on Twitter or some negative reviews—from deaf and hearing people. Some people love or don’t love the film, but it’s mainly positive in all different countries.

Zumski Finke: You made The Tribe at a time of particular unrest in Ukraine. Was there any connection between making such a dark film about crime and youth in Ukraine, and the larger environment of political unrest?

Slaboshpytskiy: I did not think about it. I finished the script in 2011, when nobody was thinking that revolution was going to happen. But, you know, when I was in film school, and studying the history of cinema, and I read about how Murnau, Fritz Lang, German Expressioniststhey said they could feel in their work the dark times in which their films were made. I thought, what a stupid book. You make a film and that’s it. I just made a film.

Love and hate do not need translation.

But I live in Kiev all the time. I am breathing in the same air as all the people in Ukraine. I think I felt something disturbing in the air but I never thought about it, I never talked about it. I just tried to tell my story.

Zumski Finke: This film is intense, brutal at times. Sex and violence are portrayed through an unflinching lens. And it’s made in the style of documentary realism. Why did you choose that style?

Slaboshpytskiy: The cinematographer is Valentyn Vasyanovych, a documentary filmmaker. I love his style. If the film is going to work for the audience, it must involve the viewer deeply. He is the person who guides the viewer through The Tribe. He deeply involved the audience in the action of the film. 

As for the the sex and violence, if you want to make a realistic film … 

Zumski Finke: Audiences in this movie are often unclear about what is happening exactly. But I found the sex and violence to be clear emotional markers throughout the film. Is that part of why your story contains these elements?

Slaboshpytskiy: Asking about violence would be a strange question for the makers of Scarface. This is not a Disney movie. I wanted to make a movie about the deaf mafia, about street gangs, about young crime.

Love and hate do not need translation. Sex, love, violence, pain—its absolutely the same for all of humanity. It doesn’t matter the color of our skin, our language, our culture. It doesn’t matter how much money we have. We made a universal film, for all audiences around the globe, without translation. And we all understand it completely in the same way.

In Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Australia, France, Japan—they reacted the same way. Very different people in very different countries. Me and you, and all people, we can feel pain in the same way. We feel happiness in the same way.