“This film is a big deal.” Ted Evans on The Tribe, the deaf film that is breaking into the mainstream

Posted on November 12, 2014

Deaf filmmaker Ted Evans says that Ukrainian film ‘The Tribe,’ which has taken the world’s film festivals by storm, is a game changer for deaf cinema.

The Tribe, which is acted entirely in Ukrainian sign language and has no subtitles, has won the First Feature Award at the BFI Awards, the Feature Film Award at the Milan Film Festival, Nespresso Grand Prize and the France 4 Visionary Award.

Considered by one critic as ‘possibly the most startling and bizarre film to be presented at this years London Film Festival’, it is also regarded as the first ‘deaf’ film to break into the mainstream.

The Tribe and its depiction of a gang and crime culture in a Ukrainian deaf school is not only a big deal for deaf film makers and fans, says Evans, It’s a big deal for all film lovers.

“The Tribe is a substantial film for cinema.” He says.

“Let alone for the Deaf community and for us Deaf filmmakers. It’s incredibly unique and original and essentially shows us that (hearing) people can watch a film in sign language, even without subtitles or translation of the dialogue, so long as the film has a clear narrative and that the overall production of the film is at a high standard.”

“It’s a big deal for sure!”

Ted Evans and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy

Ted Evans and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy

Ted feels that there is something special about director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy‘s film and that’s why its getting noticed by mainstream or hearing audiences.

“From a technical point of view the film is, to those who can’t understand Ukrainian sign language, almost like a silent movie except there is sound but not in the conventional way hearing people ‘hear’ movies.”

“The lack of dialogue makes us look at the characters emotions, their body language and facial expressions and it is relatively easy to pick up the heart of the story.

The way in which the film was shot was also unique. Using a 3 axis stabiliser, which is a gadget that produces smooth steady-cam style shots, there are very long continuous shots which can last up to 10 minutes and at times the movement of the camera is simply beautiful moving from room to room and around our characters. “

“From a Deaf filmmaker’s perspective the film is also special because I felt the performances of the Deaf non-actors, I think they can be classed as actors now, were very impressive and natural.

“When you consider the long continuous takes where they all had to stay in character, remember the blocking and remember their lines for up to 10 minutes, it is very impressive. I now know having attended two Q&A’s with the director, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, that they really had extensive rehearsals and took a lot of time to work on the shots and scenes.”

The Tribe actors used Ukrainian sign language

When Ted refers to Deaf non-actors, he means deaf people who were drafted in to play roles but were essentially not professionals at the beginning of the process.

They would have had the benefit of knowing Ukrainian sign language; hence grasping the plot without guesswork. That’s an advantage that anyone who doesn’t know Ukrainian sign language won’t have because The Tribe isn’t subtitled.

Could it be that the challenge of working out what’s going on in the film is part of its appeal and at least part of the reason behind its critical acclaim? Maybe the added mystery caused by not having subtitles leads to an immersive experience for viewers as they concentrate on decoding every expression or sign to find the true meaning behind the scene.

“I’m not sure,” says Evans.

“As BSL users, us Brits were in the same position as hearing people, as not all of us could understand the signs. We had to rely on the visuals and the performances to tell us the story just like everyone else.

“I do wonder if the hearing audiences would have been as captivated if there were subtitles and whether they would’ve veered away from the visual information being conveyed up on the screen, but then I remind myself that people enjoy watching foreign language films using subtitles.”

“It’s hard to say how the viewing experience would had differed, maybe someone should do a test?”

Despite The Tribe’s relative success, it is still an independent film and you probably won’t find it at your local Multiplex, although there is at least some hope of that after a UK distribution deal was signed last week.

The Tribe was filmed on a budget of 1 Million Euros, which is far in excess of the budgets British Deaf film makers are used to. Evans readily admits that the bar has to be raised on either side of the camera before deaf UK film makers can hope for that kind of funding.

“We don’t have the resources and the budgets we desperately need to have in order to raise standards.

“For example we can’t budget for hardly any rehearsals with our films and when you consider most deaf actors haven’t had professional training or film or TV experience, the need for rehearsals is pretty essential.

“We also don’t have the same training or work-force as mainstream filmmakers. They face gigantic competition to make films; there are so many people out there competing, so you really have to be unique as a filmmaker and of a high standard.”

Exclusive funding is available for deaf film makers in the UK through schemes run by the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust or The Ben Stiener award allocated by Deaffest.

Despite this, Evans frustrations with the funding situation in the UK continue but he has huge hopes for the future – especially since The Tribe was released.

Myroslav recieves his award at BFI

“We need more money and we need to change the way we make films. The Tribe is ground-breaking and we should all study it intensively. We also need training on both sides of the camera. We will get there one day and I’m convinced my generation will be the ones to get there.

“Slaboshpytskiy is a director I will now follow with interest having been inspired by his debut feature. I always said that the first ‘Deaf Feature Film’ would be so important in that it would open or close the door for many others waiting in the shadows.

“I’m so glad The Tribe got made and it has been received so well all over the world. It gives film makers like myself great hope and inspiration for the future.”

Interview By Andy Palmer

Andy Palmer is the hearing father of a Deaf son, and is also a child of Deaf parents. He is Chairman of the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society and teaches sign language in primary schools. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP

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Posted in: Andy Palmer