“Like magic.” That’s how Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy describes the intricate, lightning-quick articulations of sign language.

It’s also a fitting description of his stunning first feature, The Tribe. Set at a high school for the deaf in Kiev, where a newly arrived teenager is inducted into a student crime ring engaged in robbery and prostitution, the film unfolds in sign language but comes with no subtitles or voiceover. Winner of the Critics’ Week Grand Prix at Cannes 2014, it’s a thrillingly original take on a century-old medium.

The Tribe director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy

The Tribe director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy

Slaboshpytskiy says that “a decadent idea, about the pure experience of cinematic language” led him to envision a modern silent film. The Tribe is indeed cinema at its purest: visuals meeting sound to make meaning, free of the diluting effect of a text. The audience relies on actors’ expressions and physical delivery, even as the plot spreads its grim, gray wings, and the protagonist (Grigoriy Fesenko) falls in love with one of the escorts (Yana Novikova) whose services he is hawking.

The secret? The Tribe plays off of the innate theatricality of deaf communication—emphatic gesticulations that are “emotional like opera,” Slaboshpytskiy says—which places a formal emphasis on body language to convey meaning. “With sign language, we use facial expression as an integral part of language,” lead actress Novikova tells me, with the assistance of a translator.

Yana Novikova and Grigoriy Fesenko in The Tribe

Yana Novikova and Grigoriy Fesenko in The Tribe

It’s the same mechanism by which Chaplin and Pickford worked, she points out. “Those films were just gesture and movement, but you could understand.” Girlish excitement, raw desire, the perpetual thin sneer of a bully; watching The Tribe’s entirely deaf, nonprofessional cast, you can’t help but think of Norma Desmond: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”

Bodies too—used in The Tribe for graphic extremes of sex and violence. The actors’ unabashed nakedness serves more than one function: one is sheer autobiographical verisimilitude (“When I was younger, only two things interested me: sex, and sex,” Slaboshpytskiy says, laughing. “Sex is a sport for poor people.”); the other gets at the idea of transparency and truth. Slaboshpytskiy grew up opposite a school for the deaf, and saw a kind of innocence and honesty in the students’ communications. “When you cut off words, you have only feelings. You see a person without their skin.”

Sending a signal: Novikova and Fesenko in The Tribe

The Tribe‘s young actors bare all in the film’s explicit sex scenes

The camera doesn’t lie, either—and what a camera. The Tribe makes up for its dearth of verbal language by developing a visual one that’s as meticulous as it is adroit. The film is composed largely of widescreen master shots that form austere, quasi-symmetrical tableaus: the ordered arrangements of dormitory bedrooms and hallways; passengers sitting opposite each other in the back of a van; rows of trucks at a snowy depot, their drivers hoping for nighttime companionship. Relentlessly long takes spin in 360-degree turns that belie the documentary background of cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych, who made 2004’s award-winning Against the Sun. Some spectacular setpiece-type shots with multiple subjects take on, as Slaboshpytskiy suggests, a kind of eerie, otherworldly tenor, such as a nocturnal playground, gleaming under streetlamp light, where the students go to revel in their stolen spoils.

Perhaps needless to say (in a film so abhorrent of hand-holding it eschews dialogue), there are absolutely no close-ups; as much as we’d like to empathize, we’re kept at a distance from these kids. It’s a gaze that can be immersive and distancing in the same shot, as in the double-take-worthy second scene of the film, involving a seamless transition from a handheld to a still camera. We follow Fesenko via Steadicam up steps and into the school compound. Whereas he slips around the building to get to the main entrance and courtyard, though, the camera comes to rest in front of a window, watching a ceremony take place in said courtyard through the glass. All this in one take.

It may surprise you, then, that Slaboshpytskiy had no conception of how the film would look until he and Vasyanovych took the DP’s Canon EOS 5D Mark II to rehearsals and started experimenting. They switched to the Alexa for the film itself, shooting on the grounds of Slaboshpytskiy’s old school in the Golosiyivskiy district of Kiev—a location whose atmospheric dilapidation (spooky empty playgrounds, graffiti exploding from every corner) the moviemakers showcase to full effect.

A fight breaks out in an abandoned building in The Tribe

A fight breaks out in an abandoned building in The Tribe

Production took place with a crew of 50 from September 2013 to March 2014—“an incredibly long shooting period,” says Slaboshpytskiy, one that spanned the protests in the Ukraine and the Russian invasion of the Crimea. Shooting paused for over a week, at times, for thorough rehearsals of cinematography and acting alike. On the other hand, the director jokes that the film was the quickest edit in feature history because of its single-take scenes: “I think [Vasyanovych, who also served as editor] had the first cut in under 30 minutes.”

With its built-in expositional disadvantages, The Tribe’s carefully plotted sequences—each scene finding clarity in the next—work like a thriller. These are the barest, most minimalistic bones of storytelling—you don’t even get character names, much less the emotional cues of, say, a musical soundtrack. “My challenge is that people need to understand the film,” says Slaboshpytskiy, whose award-winning 2010 short “Deafness” served as a testing ground for his nonverbal methods. “Otherwise it’s an epic fail.”

What did “Deafness,” and now The Tribe, teach him about this style of filmmaking? He grins. “It works.” MM

Tech Box

Camera: Arri Alexa

Lenses: Zeiss Ultra Primes

Lighting: Custom-made LED lights with high CRI (color rendering index) and form factor similar to that of Kino Flo

Color Grading: DaVinci Resolve at home, aiming for a documentary-style look

Copy of TheTribe_300dpi

The Tribe opened in theaters June 17, 2015, courtesy of Drafthouse Films. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2015 issue, on newsstands July 7.