Do you know sign language yourself?
I learned a couple of gestures, mostly swear-words to entertain actors. They laughed a lot when I was showing some obscene gesture. In fact, the sign language is very difficult, because it is somehow similar to Chinese or Japanese. It has an alphabet, of course, but they use it quite a bit, in order to spell a name, for example. The rest of the gestures are signs like hieroglyphs. Each represents a concept or an item name. So for me it was a daunting task.
Are the actors deaf or mute, or they are just actors playing the role?
All the leading actors are deaf and mute. All our actors are amateurs. Casting lasted about a year. Back then when i was shooting “Deafness”, my short film, I’ve met the head of the Cultural Center of the Deaf people in Kiev. And he helped me a lot. The fact is that deaf people are pretty isolated and distrustful towards the others in our country. Organizing a casting with the support of the Cultural Center of the Deaf was a big luck. Deaf youth are very active users of social networks. There are several reasons for it. Deaf community is quite little. And it is difficult for them to communicate with the outside world beyond their own communities. Therefore, social networks play a very important part in their lives. Our castings took place in Cultural Center of the Deaf people for every month. In between castings we placed ads and announcements in all possible social networks, we’ve been supported by many specialized web-sites. I personally called all the specialized schools for deaf students in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. We saw about 300 applicants for all roles.
At that age – we have actors from 19 to 23 years old – a person today may be interested in acting, and tomorrow switch passion to a sports, studies, whatever comes in hand. But I need actors for six-months shooting. Therefore, we haven’t searched actors by photographs or persuaded someone to participate. Willing was an important selection criterion: we knew that we will depend on these people and we had to be sure they are trustworthy.
I came across the leading actress, Yana, accidentally. She is studying in Gomel and takes pantomime classes. She has ambitions to become an actress. Yana arrived in Kiev on a casting in pop-circus school, for a special section for deaf actors. I also came to this casting, to cast completely different girl, more sexy-looking. That’s how i originally imagined our main character. Yana is different6 she’s sort of Belarusian Audrey Hepburn. During this casting, where I came with the cameraman, I suddenly realized that I was looking not at sexy girl, but at Yana. She had that amazing energy coming from her. Two weeks later, Yana has come to us on the set. You know, she’s just fantastic. She died at the site, and then revived. All she was doing she did with absolute dedication. We celebrated her 20th birthday on set.
Did you write the script without any dialogue and in sign language?
This is a real script with written dialogues. Actors memorized text. But we have tried, of course, to choose the most expressive gestures. Sometimes we asked actors to rephrase their lines right on set. In this sense, “The Tribe” is a regular film, which tells the usual story in which the characters talk a lot – they just do it in sign language, because they are deaf. On the other hand we can say that it is a modern silent film. Not stylized to an old silent movie, which is different. There is a certain amount of stylizations, but what we’ve done here… I talked to many people in Cannes – people who can tell everything about some movie filmed in Nigeria in 1965, and they, too, could not I say that something like this was already filmed before. I asked them to tell me if there is a movie like “The Tribe”, but so far no one did.
Your movie is some kind of experimental, you prefer experimental films or ordinary drama films or combination of both?
I think my film is rather a combination of both. Despite all the experiments and innovations for dramatic cinematic language, The Tribe, in my opinion, is a classic western. And, frankly speaking, in movies I appreciate freshness most. Surprise, perhaps, some audacity. I love to be amused, whether it is an experimental film or narrative.
Tribe is controversial regarding nudity, sex and violence, do you believe so?
This is a new kind of movie. Absolutely insane and uncompromising. And it’s not about nudity that is shown – in the end, we are all adults, we watch porn and we are used to sex scenes. This is a radical film in the terms of a relationship and concept. I never had any doubts that I was doing everything right. Although, of course, in Cannes, I was concerned about a reaction to such radicalism. You know, sometimes after in Cannes screening you start to think that it would be better not to present a movie at all. Cannes failure can bury any director’s career. Thank God with us everything was successful.
Was directing the nude scenes hard? Was it hard convincing the actors to get involved in these real-like sex scenes?
Well, Grisha, who plays the main character, we had no problems. For him to play in a sex scene is a demonstration of prowess. He’s a risky guy. He is a graffiti artist, parkourist, roofer. Despite my ban, he participated in Maidan street fights.
We had some problems with the leading actress, Yana, in the sex scenes. She came to us from the small town of Gomel Belarus. And she was slightly conservative. Fortunately, my friend Denis Ivanov, owner of the largest Ukrainian company-distributor of arthouse cinema “Arthouse Traffic ” had just released “La Vie d’Adele” by Abdellatif Kechiche. What is important, the film was screened with subtitles. It is very important for a deaf person. We sent the actress to see the film, accompanied by team of assistants who put her under merciless psychological pressure. Thus, we were able to legalize her a nudity in her eyes. After some time I was told by assistants, that she erased an lipstick inscription on the mirror in her bathroom, “I want to marry that kinda guy” and wrote “I want to get a Palm D’or in Cannes”. She became a fan of the film, joined the all «La Vie d’Adele» fan communities in social networks, watched all movies with Adele and Lea, and all Kechiche works too. She was the only one out of entire crew, who really believed we will be in Cannes.
How do you think winning in Cannes can help you with your next movie?
I really hope so. I was offered to make one project right away, the day after the ceremony. A number of people have expressed their desire to work with me. I get tons of emails. Now I finally have time to answer all of them. I hope it all goes well. I’ve been waiting for it for too long. And I’m ready to start shooting a new film tomorrow.
Did you go to film school? Was it helpful for you?
Yes, I graduated from National University of theatre, cinema and television of Karpenko-Kary. Perhaps the main benefit of high school education is that the entire Ukrainian film community have studied there and formally we all know each other. I think that self-education should not be underestimated, but film school played an important role in socialization. Although it’s been a long time ago.
Who are your favorite filmmakers?
This question always puzzles me, I’ve seen a lot of movies, enough for a couple of lifetimes. And it was various movies – from porn to Tarkovsky, from thrash to blockbusters. I am almost omnivorous as a movie spectator. And at different times of the day I have a different favorite directors. This may be George Romero, and Tod Browning, and Russ Meyer, and Lars von Trier and Martin Scorsese, and Larry Clark, and Ulrich Seidl, and many, many others.
Will you continue making films in Ukraine, or you may make your next films in France or other countries?
I have a project about Chernobyl, which I started to develop before filming “The Tribe” and even directed a short film, which won the “Silver Leopard.” I would like to make this picture, and since Chernobyl is in Ukraine, the shooting apparently will be held in Ukraine. But it obviously does not prevent other countries to participate in the producing, as they may desire.
How did making short films help you in directing a feature length movie?
In 2010, with the help of my friends we took experimental short film “Deafness” with Canon Mark2 camera. It’s budget was only 300 euros, it was cheap, but i love it anyway. «Deafness» proved to be successful, hit the Berlinale Shorts Competition, received a number of awards at international film festivals. And at the end of 2010, I received a Hubert Belsey grant from the Rotterdam Film Festival Fund to develop the project – a feature length movie.
Making of “The Tribe” took about four years, ten percent of my life. In late 2010, I started writing the script, and in May 2014 it premiered.
Do you know what will be your next movie?
As I said before, I think it will be a movie about today’s life in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. I know these places pretty well and I think I have something to say about it.
Do you like to make another unconventional film; I mean Tribe has no dialogue, maybe you like to experiment with making a movie with no actor or no sound?
In fact this is a very interesting way. I saw one movie without scenery, and I was absolutely shocked that 5 minutes after I start watching it I completely stopped paying attention to the lack of scenery and was completely absorbed by the plot. Of course, I am talking about one of my favorite movies ever – “Dogville” by Lars von Trier. And of course, withdrawing speech (one of the basic elements) from the construction of “The Tribe”, I kept it in my mind. I think that the artificial withdrawal of one of the pillars, so that the building remain standing is a very interesting and challenging story. 99% the building to collapse, but if you manage this trick – it brings enormous satisfaction.
How much are you familiar with Iranian cinema?
Unfortunately, far less than I would like to. Of course, I’ve seen “A Separation” by Asghar Farhadi, which I find absolutely awesome. And, of course, I’m familiar with movies by Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf . When I was a student, in soviet and post-soviet times many international students from all over the world enrolled to film school in Kiev. At the time I once worked as director assistant with a guy named Naim, from Iran. Unfortunately, I can’t recall his last name now. Another contact with Iranian cinema happened in my Short Film Festival in Drama, Greece, where we had a wonderful international group, which included Germans, Brazilians, my wife and myself – the Ukrainians and the guy from Iran – Ashkan Ahmadi, who brought a wonderful short film “The pilgrims of Pomegranate Valley.” I really liked it. The company was wonderful and despite the fact that we were all citizens of different countries, nationalities and cultures, we had a great time and understood each other very well, because it seemed to me that we are all one united nation – the filmmakers. We still exchange emails and messages on Facebook from time to time.