The Tribe is a unique movie filmed entirely in Ukrainian sign language with no subtitles. For hearing audiences, watching The Tribe is like entering a new world. For me, interviewing the star of The Tribe allowed me to live The Tribe in real life. Yana Novikova speaks Ukrainian sign, so she had two interpreters. One (Tracy Halmagean) would translate my questions into American sign, then another (Yekaterina Balorusets) would translate American sign into Ukrainian sign. Then they’d translate her answers into American sign and then speak the answers back to me. It took 35 minutes to finish this interview, and it happened to be Novikova’s birthday too.
Novikova plays a girl in a prostitution ring at a school for the deaf. A new student (Grigoriy Fesenko) works his way up leading the prostitution ring, but falls for her along the way. The answer to one question resulted in a spoiler, but it’s the most powerful scene in the movie so I’ve included a warning not to read it before, but after you see The Tribe you’ll want to know how it was performed. A hit at Cannes Critics Week, Toronto, Fantastic Fest, AFI Fest, Sundance and many more prestigious festivals, you can now see The Tribe in theaters this weekend and expanding through the summer, many shows with Novikova in person (http://drafthousefilms.com/film/the-tribe).
Nuke: Is this your first film and did you always want to be an actor?
Yana Novikova: It is my first film and I grew up and always did have a dream of becoming an actress. Then the director chose me first so I got involved with the film and now I’m here and that’s really exciting, finally.
Nuke: Did the script have dialogue written out to be performed in sign language?
Yana Novikova: Well, the director gave me the script and also the producer. They directed me where to stand, the different placement. The script had all the specific directions in it and then I had to learn a lot of new vocabulary and new words from the script. They had to adapt the script and make some accommodations and changes to match my personality as well. So I had to memorize the script. I had to practice and then rehears how to be expressive. The director was able to make some changes, fFr example if he needed to make some changes to accommodate my character, so we would make those changes if needed. And then we were trying different things out to see what would work. We just went from there. But there were some different topics, things that were within the script, different situations in the movie that changes came up as we were working. So as we went along filming, we wanted to make sure the script matched my character and my personality. We did need to make some changes during the filming. I’m from Belarus and the Ukraine as well. Actually in the Ukraine is where the movie was filmed. Both in Belarus and the Ukraine they use the same language, Russian language. What was in the script and what ended up being signed is exactly the same, so there was no difference between what was written out in the script and what we ultimately ended up signing. The script was the same.
Nuke: What’s an example of some new words you had to learn that were introduced in the script?
Yana Novikova: So the director wrote out the script, gave it to me and I saw some words that were new to me. So I tried to be expressive and sign in accordance with my character, whether my character was mad or happy, whatever the emotion was. Sometimes the word itself didn’t show the expression or the emotion, so I’d have to pick maybe a sign that would express that emotion. Sometimes while I’m acting, I’m so focused on the acting, I would forget to show the emotion. So I’d have to go back, do it again, try to remember the word and make everything work together. In Ukrainian culture it’s different of course so the word I’m talking about here could be misunderstood so I’m trying to think of a word that would be equivalent. It’s a bad word. Let me think. Like the word f***. F*** you, for example, there are so many different meanings, like, “I don’t want you” or “you’re stupid” or maybe just expressive as an expletive. So that’s kind of an idea of maybe a specific word. It’s not only just learning a new word, but also learning the concept behind it and finding the right sign to match the concept of the word.
Nuke: Do you watch movies translating the spoken language for you?
Yana Novikova: In my country, where I’m from, when I go to the movie theater, on the big screen or if I’m watching a movie at home and it’s hearing actors, of course I watch it with captions. However, it used to be, a long, long time ago, when there were silent films and there were no speaking parts, it was just acting only, obviously those there were no voices or captioning for the old silent films. So it was really easy to watch those movies without the spoken dialogue, but when I do watch movies, yes, I do watch them with captions.
Nuke: The Tribe is a very different movie for me because I don’t understand sign language. What are you saying with the other girl in the van the first time you go to the truck stop?
Yana Novikova: So the other girl had forgotten her makeup and she asked me if I had any makeup because I did bring some with me. She was upset, “Oh, damn, why did I forget my makeup?” She was really upset about it and I told her, “No, no, don’t worry about it. Calm down.” I let her borrow some of my makeup. She thanked me and I helped her apply her makeup and some lipstick. We messed up on her lipstick when the van went over a bump in the road. Then she got upset again because her lipstick was messed up. She was complaining, “I want to look good.” She had nerves. She was nervous. I was trying to calm her down and help her before we arrived. So we laughed a little bit and she apologized, so I tried to cheer her up and encourage her on the ride in the van. So we were getting ready for our work as prostitutes. We needed to look nice. We needed to look really pretty and make sure our makeup was on and looking good because we were trying to make some money and we needed to look good. All of that took place in the van while we were driving to the truck stop. We were putting on our makeup. It was one of those situations.
Nuke: Was the sex scene in the boiler room difficult?
Yana Novikova: The first time I met that character, it was during the winter time and it was really, really cold outside. It was snowing, really, really cold. It was so cold and we had to film that scene over and over again, and we were naked. So obviously we were freezing. Having to film that scene so many times, and also it was our first time together. So we had to get in different positions and repeat those positions over and over and then we had to switch positions and do that position over and over. They’d watch a portion of it and because we had to go through so many positions, it was an all day process. And it was freezing, and it was a lot to go through so it was tough. It was really tough, but more so the case it was cold. I didn’t have a jacket. I had to just kind of endure it and get through the filming. He and I are not boyfriend and girlfriend. I felt so exposed when I had to get naked in front of him because I didn’t know him. I’d never met him before and I just had to take my clothes off right then and there, so it was pretty awkward. And, it was my first movie on top of it, having to get naked, meeting him for the first time. It was pretty overwhelming but slowly and surely, it got easier and easier as filming progressed throughout The Tribe. Also in that room, I actually really don’t like the way the scene came out ultimately.
Nuke: Why not?
Yana Novikova: I guess because it was an uncomfortable moment. I knew that we were cold. I didn’t know the other character that I was with. It was just that one sex scene. That was the only part. I thought the rest of the movie was great. I was really, really happy with it, pleased with it. Just that one scene I came away not being as satisfied with.
Nuke: [SPOILER QUESTION] Which of the long, single take scenes was the most difficult to do?
Yana Novikova: There was a scene in the film that was a difficult time in the movie. It was regarding the abortion. That was a difficult scene. It was really tough because how am I supposed to show that emotion for abortions? I’ve never experienced that. I had to try to figure out how to express that for my character and try to relay that in the scene. So the director told me, “You’ve got to show suffering. You’ve got to show worry and pain and anxiety during that scene. So I had to really think and really figure out and analyze myself and look within myself and try to find that emotion within to be able to express that with my character. Then we went to go film the scene, or do some rehearsal actually for the scene. Then I asked for some feedback after we rehearsed, feedback on what I had done the first time filming. We filmed it several different times and we actually had several different cuts. Then they went through and decided which one would be the best cut. They said maybe one wasn’t so good, we preferred one cut over another.
There was one problem. Everything worked out with my character but there was a problem with someone who was working as a nurse for the abortion in that scene. She also needed to show her character as well. My character’s emotions and her character’s emotions were at conflict. Whereas my scene might’ve come out great, the nurse’s performance wasn’t great in that scene so we had to do it multiple times and make sure that our characters were in alignment.
We also had to learn about the different equipment and things that were needed for that procedure, so they had to teach us about that and then we had to rehearse, go back and rehearse again and rehearse the scene and make sure that we got everything just right. Once we got everything right, we filmed the scene and when we were done, I actually really needed to cry. I needed to cry a lot for this scene. It was a really long day of crying and crying and crying and rehearsal and practice. It was real hell. And also because I had to lean up against that tub, it was really, really uncomfortable on my back. It was really hard, so the way I was positioned with that hard metal tub on my back, it was really tough. But it really showed survival. It really applied to her life situation sometimes. Hopefully I showed the genuine emotion.
I had my feet up, propped up, with a clothesline. So there was a rope tied from one leg and then it went around my neck into the other leg. It used to be a long time ago in the Communist regime that women would go for secret procedures. Women under the Communist regime couldn’t go to an actual doctor, they would go for these underground abortion clinics. So the way that they would be positioned is a rope would be tied around one leg, around the neck and then attached to the other leg during the abortion procedure. It was difficult because the women had to keep their legs up for long periods of time. Having the rope tied would try to help make things more comfortable keeping their legs up. It was really, really painful. It hurt. It hurt my neck quite a bit. Throughout rehearsal we had to do this quite a bit but I made it through. It made a through.
Nuke: How many takes was it ultimately?
Yana Novikova: Like I said, this is the first movie I had experience in so there was so much to go through. I felt like I was going through hell sometimes through all these different things that we had to do. I lost count actually. We filmed it so many times, I lost count but I do remember it was really, really tough getting through that scene. It was really, really difficult. And it was my first movie. Because it was my first movie, it was more complicated for me getting through it. It was my first time. It wasn’t easy. With my first experience, I couldn’t be soft. My character wasn’t soft. It had to be hard, so it was a good experience. It really has helped me become stronger as a person.