BMDQ&A: THE TRIBE’s Yana Novikova On Her Impressive And Brave Film Debut

Britt speaks with the star of Drafthouse Films' staggering latest.

The Tribe is a truly exceptional, singular film -- the story of a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf, where director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky employs real deaf actors and utilizes no spoken dialogue or music, providing a fully immersive and (pardon the pun) disquieting experience for the viewer. One of the many highlights of The Tribe is Yana Novikova's bold and brave performance as Anya, a girl who -- along with her friend, Svetka -- is pimped out by a group of her rowdy male peers, resulting in an unnerving dramatic arc for Anya. Novikova's performance is even more impressive when you discover that this was her first time acting professionally. I had a chance to interview Novikova to discuss her inspirations and the challenges of playing Anya.

The Tribe was the first time you acted in front of a camera, and the film demands a lot from you both emotionally and physically. Can you discuss what that experience was like?

Yes. At first I had no experience as I was not a professional working actress. In rehearsals, we discussed each scene and more about my role with the director and I worked very hard. It got less difficult to fall into her role as we continued shooting. I knew I had to put a lot of emotion and authentic feeling so the audience can believe in her character. I thank the movie for giving me experiences to work on my qualities as an actress.

What was the audition process like?

There were many auditions held with several deaf schools and communities during the casting. At first, I was not chosen for the role and I was very upset, but then they contacted me for another audition and I thank destiny that they changed their mind and Myroslav gave me this role in his movie.

Going in, I imagine you already had a strong connection to the material and the world created in the film, but what were some of the other meaningful moments or connections you discovered while making the film?

After I viewed the movie Life Adele (which Myroslav recommended) [note: she's referring to LA VIE d'Adele aka Blue Is the Warmest Color), I felt a connection and it is the moment I was sure that I could do a powerful performance and I set my objectives for the film. Myroslav told me that the movie received awards at the Cannes film festival. I didn't know about the Cannes film festival. I asked him, "will The Tribe play at Cannes film festival?" And he replied "I don't know, it depends from the movie and us." I was living in an apartment in Kiev during production and I decided to write on my bathroom mirror in red lipstick, "The Tribe will receive the Palme d'Or." Later, The Tribe got in Cannes and received four awards. It is improbable!

What was the most challenging moment for you as an actress?

It was heaviest to play the emotional scenes and also the abortion scene. I imagined going through all the powerful emotions and pain and tried to show those feelings.

How did you approach playing the role of Anya? Were you able to connect with her on a personal level?

Anya sees prostitution as a means to an end, it earns her money so she can achieve her goal to go abroad and dream of a new life in Italy so she can separate herself from what she is doing. I tried to immerse myself into Anya's character and how she thought even when not shooting so even my own personality was under construction while I played this role.

The abortion scene is a really tough moment, but the emotions in that scene speak to many women on a universal level. Does that scene speak to a reality for some women in Ukraine?

After a premiere screening of our movie, one woman who was deaf came up to me and told me she felt it was very realistic to her experience. I felt that meant I was not mistaken with how I portrayed this scene.

Are there any similarities between the fictional boarding school in this film and schools you've attended?

I studied in a boarding school and so I have seen how children can fight, demand money, etc. Of course, not all schools are like this or that extreme, but I was able to experience a little of it.

What do you feel is the most powerful takeaway in the film, for you personally, or for the audience?

In our movie, although there are not proper words like in a silent cinema, when the deaf communicate -- in addition to gestures through sign language -- there is even more to understand. I would say it is because communication -- in any form -- is important. I also think it is a wider window for us all and The Tribe forces the viewer to forget he or she is sitting in a cinema.

This was originally published in the July issue of Birth.Movies.Death. Drafthouse Films' The Tribe is now in theaters.