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Ukrainian Film The Tribe Explores the Little-Known World of the Deaf Mafia

After winning a slew of awards across Europe and major U.S. film festivals, The Tribe, a film featuring a cast of deaf teenagers playing characters caught up in the harrowing world of the deaf mafia of Kiev, finally arrives in South Florida for its theatrical run. The film has no subtitles and the actors only speak in Ukrainian sign language. After it premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, the film's director/writer Miroslav Slaboshpitsky won three prizes alone at the festival. A former crime reporter in Kiev, this marked the filmmaker's debut feature film.

The film follows Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) as he enters a deaf boarding school. A group of troublemakers draw him into their circle to work for the deaf mafia (it’s a real thing, says Slaboshpitsky, a former crime reporter in the Ukraine). He goes from petty theft to pimping his female classmates at a truck stop. Conflict arises when he falls in love with one of the girls, Anya (Yana Novikova).

There's never been a film like this, not just in covering this subject but also in its storytelling. Slaboshpitsky says he was inspired by the purest kind of cinematic storytelling. "It's an homage to the silent film," he explains speaking from Kiev, via Skype.

While Slaboshpitsky recognizes that this is a stylistic choice, he says it also serves a stark purpose:  "I think the incorporation of all these elements — the long takes, no verbal words, moving camera, in-frame editing — is a very important thing. We do not change the point of view of camera. We do not shoot an over-shoulder or something like that. All of this must deeply involve the audience inside the film."
Considering the film features lengthy, unblinking scenes of unadulterated sex and violence, The Tribe is sure to make many uneasy. "We shoot the violence in a completely different way than they do in mainstream movies," says the director. "We shoot it in a realistic way, real ugly, like the way violence looks like in real life."

Sex is treated just as graphically. Responding to questions via email, Novikova clarifies, "This was not porn, the scenes have an aesthetic purity, there is feeling to them. These scenes are important to convey a sense of fullness, so that the audience believes and empathizes with the hero."
The Tribe marks actress Novikova's first film, as well. When she was about six-years-old, her mother took her to see Titanic. Enraptured by Kate Winslet's performance, she realized she wanted to become an actress.

To prepare her for her role, Slaboshpitsky gave her a viewing list of movies for inspiration, including Blue is the Warmest Color, a celebrated French movie featuring a female high school student falling in love with a slightly older female college student and frank, lengthy sex scenes. "I was so impressed with the performance by the lead character," she says of Blue star Adèle Exarchopoulos. "It is because of her performance in that film that I changed my attitude towards the role in The Tribe."

Novikova feels The Tribe, like Blue, is a raw and artistic film. Most importantly, it harnesses the power of deaf actors like no other film could.

If anyone doubts whether a film like this could be understood by people who do not speak the language of the deaf, Novikova says, “Wherever we showed the film, viewers who hear all understood. Of course, when deaf audiences see it, they pay attention to the gestures, to what the characters say with their hands. But that's not the signed dialogue. That is the emotions, because deaf foreigners who don't understand International Sign are like hearing audiences forced to understand it from the emotions...The Tribe is truly a film for everyone."

The Tribe opens at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 23, at Miami Beach Cinematheque (1130 Washington Ave., Miami Beach). Call 305-673-4567 or visit
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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos ( if not in New Times.