Ukrainian writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy loves movies so much that on his recent first visit to New York he asked friends to take him to Little Italy so he could see the neighborhood that produced Martin Scorsese.
“Scorsese is God to me,” Slaboshpytskiy said on a recent visit to Boston. It was his first time here, but he seemed fully at home (“I’m a big fan of [the old TV show] ‘Boston Legal,’ ” he explained) fielding a reporter’s questions before attending a special screening of his debut feature, “The Tribe,” at the Brattle Theatre, along with his wife, film producer Elena Slaboshpytskiy. The director speaks English well enough, but there was an interpreter on hand.
“I love all movies: porn, horror, trash, art house, stupid comedies,” Slaboshpytskiy said. Besides Scorsese, his favorite directors include Lars von Trier, George Romero, Tod Browning, and Orson Welles. But such a wide-ranging appreciation of cinema did not produce a derivative first feature. Slaboshpytskiy, 40, knew he wanted to make something entirely new: a modern silent movie. Unlike with the Oscar-winning “The Artist,” which used title cards as homage to ’20s-era silent films, Slaboshpytskiy didn’t want subtitles or voiceovers. His solution: a cast of nonprofessional deaf actors who communicate solely in sign language.
For the story, Slaboshpytskiy looked to Scorsese. “ ‘Mean Streets’ is a film about what he knew,” said Slaboshpytskiy. “The Tribe” (opening here on Friday) is an often brutal coming-of-age story set in a bleak Ukraine boarding school for deaf students. Gangs of older teens run amok, with little adult supervision. A new student, Sergey (Grygoriy Fesenko), arrives and quickly falls in with the school’s crime syndicate, first selling contraband, then pimping a pair of female students at a truck stop. He falls for one, Anya (Yana Novikova), who is headed to Italy as part of a sex-trafficking scheme orchestrated by a corrupt bureaucrat and aided by a teacher at the school.
Slaboshpytskiy shot the film at the school he attended as a boy, located directly opposite the state-run institution for the deaf. Even as a youth watching from a distance, he was captivated by the wild gestures of sign language. “It looks like a miracle; like the highest level of communication because it is pure emotion, pure feeling. Of course, I could not understand sign language. If I could, the miracle would not happen. I wanted to share this feeling with the audience,” he said.
Slaboshpytskiy first explored a silent film with a deaf cast in his 2010 short “Deafness,” which attracted some attention on the international festival circuit. “We spent approximately $300 to make it. It was a very important film for me because I saw that this type of film could work,” he said. “Second, I made connections with the deaf community of Ukraine so when I needed support to develop ‘The Tribe,’ people knew me. I was able to audition inside the deaf society of Ukraine. It is a very closed society that does not trust foreigners.”
He wrote a script for the film “like any other script,” but what the audience hears are sound effects — car horns, footsteps, bodies slapping during sex — accompanied by a dramatic visual vocabulary that makes silence a universal language, according to Slaboshpytskiy. With themes of underworld crime and exploitation of the powerless, the physical and emotional violence in the film may be realistic, but it has stirred some controversy. There were reports of viewers fainting and running from the theater during one particularly graphic scene involving an abortion in a kitchen. Slaboshpytskiy, who worked briefly as a crime reporter in the ’90s before heading to film school in Kiev, said the brutality in his film is nothing compared to real life in the Ukraine, which is “organized like a mafia gang.” Elena Slaboshpytskiy, a journalist turned film producer who helped her husband write the script, agreed.
“As a woman, I was concerned about the violence. But I knew his vision and knew he had to be honest,” she said. “When we finished the script, I could not sleep. I kept thinking about it. The ending is violent but honest and it was the result of my collaboration.”
The couple met 14 years ago in Kiev. “We have the same taste in movies and music. He helped me with articles when I was a journalist writing about movies and then I began to work with him on his short films and now his features. I am not afraid of speaking out to him about what I think,” she said. “That’s the reason I love working with him.”
She’ll co-produce Slaboshpytskiy’s next film, “Luxembourg,” which he described as a neo-noir set in the nuclear wasteland of Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. He hopes to begin shooting in December.
As “The Tribe” has opened in 44 countries over the past year, Slaboshpytskiy knows it won’t always be met with the positive reception it earned at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. “It’s not a Disney film,” he said with a shrug. As for critics who object to the lack of subtitles, he’s also unbowed. “Subtitles in this film are impossible,” he said. “It would be like seeing ‘Swan Lake’ and some idiot is onstage telling you what is happening.”Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.