with Ukrainian Director
By Greg Klymkiw
The acclaimed Ukrainian filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi and I agreed to an interview/conversation via Skype and in my opening minutes with a contemporary director I admire very deeply, I decide to break the ice - not by complimenting him on his film The Tribe, but telling him about my apartment in downtown Kyiv during the early 2000s. In particular I inform him that it was on Mykhailivs'ka Street, just near Паб О'Брайанс (O'Brien's Pub) and a mere hop, skip and a jump from the McDonald's at Independence Square, the Maidan (scene of the Orange Revolution and the more recent site of the magnificent 2013-2014 occupation which eventually ousted the corrupt President and Putin-ite Viktor Yanukovych).
In spite of the tragic events in Maidan, the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, what, pray tell do you think was foremost on my mind?
"Are the Golden Arches okay?" I asked. "Did McDonald's suffer much damage during the Maidan Revolution?"
"It's fine," said Slaboshpytskyi. "The only difference now is the number of dead bodies in front of the McDonald's."
We enjoy the kind of hearty laugh only two Ukrainians can genuinely share. It was similar to our shared patriarchal Ukrainian mirth when I asked him what his wife's name was.
"Elena", he replied.
"What's her surname?" I asked.
"The same as mine," he responded.
"But of course," I replied. "As it should be."
I have to admit it was a real privilege and honour to spend some time with Slaboshpytskyi on Skype. His great film The Tribe finally opened theatrically in Toronto via Films We Like at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and this seemed as good a reason as any to touch base.
Delightfully, we spent most of our time talking about movies. It came as no surprise to me that he is an inveterate film nut and has been so since childhood.
Born in 1974 and raised in Ukraine under the Soviet system, living in both in Kyiv and Lviv, Slaboshpytskyi explains what ultimately sounds like a charmed childhood. His Mom and Dad were both artists. Father Mykhailo is an acclaimed author and literary critic and mother Lyudmila is an editor-in-chief with a huge publishing house. His wife, Elena Slaboshpitskaya (whom he met in St. Petersburg, Russia) is a writer, critic and these days, his chief creative producer.
"As a child," he reminisces, "our home was always full of eccentric writers, talking about literature until late in the night and there were always books, rows and rows of great books to read. Hundreds, no, thousands of books. And every night I'd come home from the movies and always find our home full of those writers. Of course, they were all drunk."
And the movies? What, I wonder led Slaboshpytskyi to a life as a filmmaker?
"I don't think I ever wanted to be anything else," he says. "As a child, everyday after school, instead of going straight home, I went to see movies. It didn't matter what was playing. I went to see them all and often watched movies again and again. I would usually watch three movies each day."
He explains that under Soviet rule, many of the movies were of the Soviet variety, but this mattered not. Movies were movies. And, of course, there were a few "foreign" movies to tantalize the tastebuds. He mentions that Bollywood movies were extremely popular in Ukrainian movie theatres when he was a kid. I query Myroslav about this curious feature since I was always scratching my noggin whilst in Ukraine since so many TV stations played Bollywood pictures in the early 2000s.
I always assumed that it was because the rights to buy the movies was cheap. He agrees this might have been one of the reasons, but he notes that Bollywood movies were the few "action" movies with no politics and could also be viewed by the whole family with little fear of ideologically objectionable material. The only action movies other than those from Bollywood were a lot of the great crime pictures from France and Italy which starred the likes of Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and, among others, Yves Montand. As well, there were many French comedies, many of which starred the legendary Louis de Funès. Not that the young Myroslav had problems with any of these. "Anything was better than boring Soviet films," he admits.
So, were there any American movies at all?
"In 1982 I saw Three Days of the Condor in the movie theatre at least 40 times," he admits. "This movie was such magic for me." Not only did the film feature the dazzling 70s style of dark American existentialism as wrought by the late, great Sydney Pollack, but it was an opportunity for the impressionable young Myroslav to get a real taste of Hollywood superstars like Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. He notes that the movie probably played in the Soviet Union only because it was so overtly anti-American, but I imagine politics were not on the mind of an eight-year-old movie fanatic who was instead dazzled by the sheer electricity of an American thriller.
Of course I'm always obsessed with epiphanies when it comes to my favourite film directors. I like to know if and when they experienced an epiphanic moment which made them decide to become filmmakers. Curiously, Myroslav tells me a story that reminds me somewhat of Martin Scorsese talking about how he sees the world as if through a camera lens and as a series of shots simply by the act of walking down the street.
"I wish I could remember the name of the movie," Myroslav says, "but I do know it was a Bollywood film. I was probably eight-years-old, the same age I saw Three Days of the Condor and this movie ended very late in the evening. It was already dark and I was walking home alone down my usual street, but there were shadows everywhere and it seemed that each way I looked, it seemed very scary. However, I was energized by the movie I saw, but also energized by my fear and without really fully understanding what it meant to be a movie director, I have a very clear memory of deciding there and then that I was going to direct movies."
Not only did this remind me of the Scorsese anecdote, but I had to admit to Myroslav it also reminded me of the story about Leo Tolstoy who discovered cinema at its earliest and most rudimentary point, and that he was excited by the possibilities of cinema, but alternately, he expressed disappointment that he was too old to ever experience the joy of this medium which, he felt, was perhaps the most ideal way to express himself as an artist.
I asked Myroslav if he imagined what it must have been like for artists with the souls of filmmakers who did not have the available technology to adequately express themselves.
As I'm discovering, Slaboshpytskyi's delightful sense of humour always lies puckishly in wait. "Yes," he remarks dryly, "It is the man who no sex and watches pornography."
As is my wont, I accept this.
When I finally get around to asking Myroslav about The Tribe, I remark that his film is gorgeous to look at, but in the way films are which reflect what's referred to as "a terrible beauty" - that it even seems to have a 70s quality of naturalism and existentialism to it.
Firstly he admits that The Tribe is "a compilation of real stories I gathered; stories I knew and stories that were told to me by those kids I spent time interviewing in my old neighbourhood. They aren't necessarily specific to the school in which my movie is set, but they are things that happen in all schools in urban areas like Kyiv."
Astoundingly, Slaboshpytskyi reveals that The Tribe "is shot in same school in which I was a pupil. I shot everything in the area, the very same district as my childhood. Every location in the movie is one I know. I know every building and place I shot in."
This certainly explains the raw realism of his picture, but I find it interesting that the movie was conceived well before and then shot in 2013 on the cusp of the big Maidan Revolution. My first screening of the film brought back so many memories of my time in Ukraine in the pre-Orange and pre-Maidan days, the sheer survival mode of Ukrainians in post-Soviet Ukraine blew me away, but also the realities, the hidden dark secrets of sexual exploitation at every turn.
Myroslav admits his film is a story of humanity first and foremost; that he sought not to make any overt political statements.
"It's about survival," he says. "Survival has been the national trademark of Ukraine since the beginning of time. It's not a metaphor, but a reality. Everybody must survive or just simply, try to survive."
His memories of post-Soviet Ukraine, especially in the early days are mostly positive. "Everyone seemed very happy. After all, we finally got our independence." He admits to the ongoing economic crises, but seems somewhat bemused (as most Ukrainians would be) at how different Ukrainian capitalism was from anyone's notion of capitalism. "Yes, there was sometimes disappointment with the government, but I believe it is no paradise anywhere in the world. If there was a problem it was that everything was still a mix of the old Soviet system with the new realities of capitalism."
He notes that Ukraine was and still is not as bad as it is in Russia. He says this in the same breath as he almost wistfully recalls a time when Ukraine always seemed to be in the midst of "real gang wars".
"Ukraine was like real Chicago-style gangster movies," he says with just a tiny bit of excitement in his voice and with a smile on his face.
Ah, and we're back to the movies again. I mention to Myroslav how much fun it is to talk about movies with him and that I could probably sit there all day doing so. He talks about seeing movies in the post-Soviet period and he describes the 90s and beyond as a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of every conceivable movie. Of course, he loves Taxi Driver, Tarantino and especially the work of Paul Verhoeven. He cites Showgirls and Basic Instinct as being hugely exciting and inspirational. We both commiserate over the ludicrous critical backlash against Showgirls in particular and what a genuinely great movie it is. (I'd like to think it's because we're both Ukrainians, but of course, the film does have its admirers outside of Ukraine and its disapora.)
What's thrilling to hear is how Myroslav sucked up so many movies in a relatively short space of time, and. of course, the sheer variety of works he was seeing for the very first time. "I watched all films, everything," he declares. "It was necessary to devour this new culture as quickly as possible, to see it all. Here I was, watching Rambo and then, Citizen Kane."
And so on, it went. And on. And on. Movie upon movie upon movie.
Plus it wasn't just movies. Myroslav also began to devour all the literature his country missed out on. He cites Bukowski, Miller, Kesey and yes, even Dashiel Hammet. He can clearly go on, but it's here he notes that the "big tragedy of Ukraine's artist generation", in particular those who came before his own generation, was that they could read great works that had been withheld from their purview, but that they were not always able to "understand the context of American culture and how it related to the literature."
Finally, we get back to the movies. Myroslav is especially keen to point out the inherent "bravery of cinema." Of course, I need to rain on the parade by expressing how I enjoyed the proficiency of some current studio pictures, but that they were really about nothing. Myroslav seems more realistic than I. He admits to having a "problem" with "some modern cinema", but his year of attending film festivals with The Tribe has given him a window into the myriad of independent films from all over the world, including America. He waves off the emptiness of some studio efforts as being linked solely to the "risk" factor of "bigger budgets".
"I live for the movies," he says. "For me, the movies are the thing. All my life I wanted to make movies, then all my life I began to make movies and I can forget my previous life, but I will always have the movies."
Amen to that.
And now, here is my review of The Tribe as originally written during its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2014. I've made a few minor changes to the piece, but I've decided to let the piece stand as I first wrote it, especially in light of my opportunity to speak with Myroslav. You see, when I go to movies, I try to view them as unfettered as possible. ALL I knew about The Tribe when I first saw it was that it was from Ukraine. For me, it's the best way to see movies and Slaboshpytskyi's great film especially offers added resonance when seen that way.
And it is, truly and genuinely great!
|Russia's continued oppression of Ukraine batters|
the most vulnerable members of society.
Dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Starring: Yana Novikova, Grigoriy Fesenko, Rosa Babiy,
Alexander Dsiadevich, Yaroslav Biletskiy, Ivan Tishko, Alexander Sidelnikov
Review By Greg Klymkiw
One of the most appalling legacies of Russian colonization/dictatorship over the country of Ukraine has, in recent years, been the sexual exploitation of women (often children and teenagers). Add all the poverty and violence coursing through the nation's soul, much of it attributable to Mother Russia's tentacles of corruption, organized crime and twisted notions of law, order and government, that it's clearly not rocket science to realize how threatening the Russian regime is, not only to Ukraine, but the rest of Eastern Europe and possibly, beyond.
Being a Ukrainian-Canadian who has spent a lot of time in Ukraine, especially in the beleaguered Eastern regions, I've witnessed first-hand the horrible corruption and exploitation. (Ask me sometime about the Russian pimps who wait outside Ukrainian orphanages for days when teenage girls are released penniless into the world, only to be coerced into rust-bucket vans and dispatched to God knows where.)
The Tribe is a homespun indigenous Ukrainian film that is a sad, shocking and undeniably harrowing dramatic reflection of Ukraine with the searingly truthful lens of a stylistic documentary treatment (at times similar to that of Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl and dappled occasionally with a 70s American existentialist cinematic sensibility).
Focusing upon children, the most vulnerable victims of Russia's aforementioned oppression, this is a film that you'll simply never forget.
Set in a special boarding school, writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, paints an evocative portrait of students living within a tribal societal structure (literally as per the title) where adult supervision is minimal at best and even culpable in the desecration of youth. Living in an insular world, carved out by years of developing survival skills in this institutional environment, the kids have a long-established criminal gang culture and they engage in all manner of nefarious activities including, but not limited to thieving, black marketeering and pimping.
Slaboshpytskiy's mise-en-scène includes long, superbly composed shots and a stately, but never dull pace. This allows the film's audience to contemplate - in tandem with the narrative's forward movement - both the almost matter-of-fact horrors its young protagonists accept, live with and even excel at while also getting a profound sense of the ebbs and flows of life in this drab, dingy institutional setting. In a sense, the movie evokes life as it actually unfolds (or, at least, seems to).
The violence is often brutal and the film never shies away from explicit sexual frankness. We watch the beautiful teenage girls being pimped out at overnight truck stops, engaging in degrading acts of wham-bam without protection, perpetrated against their various orifices by truckers who shell out cash for the privilege of doing so. As well, we experience how the same girls are cum-receptacles for their fellow male students, delivering blow-jobs or intercourse when it's required.
On occasion, we witness consensual, pleasurable lovemaking, but it always seems tempered by the fact that it's the only physical and emotional contact these children, of both sexes, have ever, ow will ever experience. Even more harrowing is when we follow the literal results of this constant sexual activity and witness a necessary, protracted, pain-wracked scene wherein one young lady seeks out and receives an unsanitary and painful abortion.
While there are occasional moments of tenderness, especially in a romance that blossoms between one young boy and girl, there's virtually no sense of hope that any of these children will ever escape the cycles of abuse, aberrant behaviour and debasement that rules their lives. The performances elicited by Slaboshpytskiy are so astonishing, you're constantly in amazement over how naturalistic and reflective of life these young actors are, conveying no false notes with the kind of skill and honesty one expects from far more seasoned players.
The special circumstances these children are afflicted with also allows Slaboshpytskiy to bravely and brilliantly tell his story completely though the purest of cinematic approaches. Visuals and actions are what drive the film and ultimately prove to be far more powerful than words ever could be. Chances are very good that you'll realize what you're seeing is so wholly original that you'll ultimately sit there, mouth agape at the notion that what you're seeing on-screen is unlike anything you will have ever seen before.
Try, if you can, to see the film without seeing or reading anything about it. Your experience will be all the richer should you choose to go in and see it this way. Even if you don't adhere to this, the movie is overflowing with touches and incidents in which you'll feel you're seeing something just as original.
The Tribe evokes a world of silence and suffering that is also perversely borderline romantic, a world where connections and communication are key elements to add some variation to a youth culture that is as entrenched as it is ultimately constant and, frankly, inescapable.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars, highest rating.
The Tribe is being distributed in Canada via Films We Like. It's enjoying a theatrical run at the majestic TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto with other cities to follow. For tix, dates and times at Lightbox, visit the TIFF website by clicking HERE.