The Tribe

Dir: Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy

Drafthouse, Ukraine, 2014

Starring: Grygoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rozy Babiy

Driven by sign language and bastardy.

Gimmicky festival hits tend to fall into two major categories. Boyhood (2014), “the film shot with the same characters over twelve years”, manages to use its in-built tagline to its advantage, providing a painstaking summation of the epic sprawl of Richard Linkater’s particular vision. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), on the other hand, never becomes much more than “the first Iranian vampire western” that pays considerable homage to Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley. It’s a very good film in its own right, and it certainly has more replay value than Boyhood, but it won’t be remembered as favourably when the decade-end lists roll out in 2019. So depending on how the hook is followed through, the critics will either establish a long and wonderful romance with your festival hit, or they’ll quietly sneak out the morning after. Usually it’s the latter.

A similar divide exists for graphically violent films; gruelling content is often deployed to create a thrilling experience or convincing allegory, but its misuse can destroy a film’s integrity altogether. As a film that is both graphic and gimmicky, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe – the “Ukrainian Sign Language film” that everybody wailed about at Cannes last year – tackles a precarious high-wire act; its gamble is that it could be viewed as “a gimmick for the sake of it”, “violence for the sake of it”, or possibly even “great cinema”.

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Slaboshpytskiy used to work in crime reporting, so it’s understandable that his directorial feature debut should be structured around a mafia-type set-up. That background also likely informs the strong sense of realism in The Tribe, which is enhanced by the distanced, fluid steadicam of Valentyn Vasyanovych (previously a documentary filmmaker). Its closest antecedent is the harrowing nonchalance of Alan Clarke, and as with his film Elephant (1989), there are very few spoken words throughout the film, which features an all-deaf cast using Ukranianian Sign Language, with no subtitles, voiceover narration, or even any form of legend to interpret the film’s silent dialogue. Given that it’s basically impossible to understand what the characters are saying – even in Ukraine itself, very few people speak their national sign language – the storytelling in The Tribe relies primarily upon body language, facial expressions, and action. And because the first two of those can only carry a film so far, Slaboshpytskiy makes that action as potent as possible.

The result is a work of astounding cynicism. It ruthlessly upturns the normalised ideal of how films driven by disabled characters are expected to behave; instead of sweeping, schmoozy melodrama with a tearjerking climax and an unbearably soppy tone, The Tribe is as bleak as a torture chamber, featuring gang brawls, corruption, extortion, prostitution, graphic sex, head trauma, and countless other pleasantries. The majority of the film takes place in a boarding school for the deaf, which doubles up as a prison, and triples up as a microcosm of society at large, wherein a hierarchy is maintained and helmed by the thuggish King (Olexandr Osadchyi). He answers to the erstwhile untouchable powers that be – the teachers – and employs a selection of henchmen, one of whom is the school’s newest arrival, Sergey (Grygoriy Fesenko). Initially timid, Sergey is quickly appointed the dubious task of pimping his female classmates to the local lorry drivers, only to jeopardise his ascension (and potentially his life) when he falls desperately in love with one of the prostitutes, Anya (Yana Novikova).

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From the resulting typhoon of depravity, it’s feasible to suggest Slaboshpytskiy is arguing that, no matter what, any human society will inevitably be founded upon and governed by animalistic tendencies, regardless of how well hidden those tendencies might be. The boarding school may be one step removed from civilisation in its rigid enclosure, but its genial facade presented in the opening shots is gradually disassembled further and further as we edge closer to the heart of its cruel management, much in the vein of satires and American paranoid thrillers. Indeed, having to resort to following the characters’ often agitated body language – all while pining for the spoken dialogue we’re so conditioned to in cinema – successfully generates a creeping sense of anxiety for the viewer. It makes for propulsive viewing as we witness electric conversations, and then are required to wait, wired by tension, until the action reveals what the characters are actually saying (usually via shockingly grim reveals). Eventually, the film begins to feel genuinely dangerous, which underlines its central notion that human beings are utterly incapable at co-existing peacefully.

But even if that reading is simply a more favourable way of viewing a mere stylistic exercise, or whether the film is “pretentious” as opposed to “bold”, it doesn’t matter; The Tribe is a magnetising watch and an entirely unique experiment that, even if it ends up being deserted by its current admirers, will undoubtedly prove an unforgettable experience for all who accept its challenge. Furthermore, it’s a successful payoff from what was initially an enormous gamble; during pre-production, Slaboshpytskiy was completely unsure of the ramifications of shooting a film in a language barely anyone speaks, but he went ahead with it anyway. That alone deserves some respect, and even if The Tribe doesn’t quite achieve the status of “great cinema”, it remains suggested viewing nonetheless.

  • L. G. Ball

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