The discussions that have been surrounding this astonishing Ukrainian drama by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy centre on whether its graphic sex or most shocking depictions of savage violence are somehow exploitative of its largely young, entirely deaf cast, and also on the film’s ability to make the viewer think about the usual ways in which they experience this art form, which has over the years become so reliant on sonics. Watching it is, without doubt, a cinematic experience unlike any other: the dialogue is entirely in Ukrainian sign-language and a title card informs that there will be no subtitles, while there is no score and the plot is not explained via intertitles (though it is easy to follow, based on what you see happen and what you pick up from the gestures, plus your own natural ability to interpret facial expressions and body language). Many reviewers have mentioned the silent film era when writing about The Tribe, but in truth this a vastly different kettle of fish, and Slaboshpytskiy was keen for his primarily non-professional cast to avoid the exaggerated actions of silent film stars. Instead he showed his young actors – who were previously familiar with Hollywood blockbusters, porn, and little else – a number of European art house films, including work by the Dardennes and Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs.
The Tribe takes place almost entirely within the confines of a run-down boarding school for deaf children, a depressing microcosm filled with bare corridors and stark bedrooms. Filmed head on and with a static camera as a series of tableaux, with occasional steadicam shots following the actors and the action, we initially meet new student Sergey (Hryhoriy Fesenko) as he disembarks from a bus and asks a stranger for directions. In one long, continuous take he approaches the school for the first time and is directed by a cleaner to an alternative entrance, while we also witness a ceremony of sorts, during which happy pupils give flowers to the Headmistress and her teachers. Any sense that this place is an idyllic environment for learning are soon dispelled, however, and the school is quickly revealed to be a haven for criminality: a young gang of five teenage boys rules the roost, bullying younger kids and carrying out muggings under the watchful eye of their boss, who is also the woodwork teacher. The gang also pimps out two young female boarders at night to drivers resting at a remote truck stop.
Though initially disorienting, The Tribe welcomes viewers who aren’t well-versed in Ukrainian sign language through the simplicity and clarity of its scenes, of which there are just 34 in total (in a film that extends beyond the two hour mark). Sergey’s initiation into both school and gang life is clearly telegraphed, for example, although the characters’ relationships, personalities and pecking orders are established in subtler ways. Before long it feels natural to be watching a film in sign language, and though one or two scenes were not entirely clear to me at the time, they were at least explained by subsequent events that enabled me to understand.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, even though the lack of conventional spoken dialogue will put many people off, it’s not the primary barrier that will stop cinemagoers from ‘enjoying’ The Tribe. Instead it will more than likely be the lurid material that Slaboshpytskiy, also the writer and producer, gradually builds in. Initially the fights and pile-ons we see are sinister, and serious, but they can be watched without experiencing any lasting discomfort. This soon develops into brutal muggings: one on a quiet path filmed at night from a distance, another in more confined surroundings on board a train, though the camera concentrates on the air above the victim as he is beaten. Then come the graphic sex scenes as Sergey develops feelings for one of the prostitutes, a young student called Anya (Yana Novikova), whom he is warned off due to her attachment to the gang leader. The young cast members in question should be commended for their realistic acting during these scenes, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t uncomfortable viewing; there are no cuts away and the single takes extend on and on, although there are harder scenes to sit through as the film approaches its violent and startling denouement.
Without wishing to say anything specific, three scenes in particular left me in shock, and I consider myself a hardened cinemagoer who is rarely troubled by on-screen extremity: one involves Anya, one involves Sergey as he is punished for certain actions by his peers, and the last is the final scene of the film, during which the apparent profound deafness of the characters is especially relevant. Little wonder that I or my fellow half dozen audience members emitted gasps and audible sighs of relief as The Tribe finished, and little wonder that everyone remained in their seats throughout the credits, frozen by the images they had witnessed. As such, while I would recommend this film as one of the best I have seen this year, certainly the one that I’ve found the most challenging and the one for which I have the most admiration, I would add the caveat that you need a strong constitution if you’re going to sit through it; I felt mentally drained by the end.
There are few likeable characters here, if any, and some are involved in many other troubling incidents in addition to the ones I have alluded to above: it is perhaps less shocking in terms of its violence, for example, but a scene in which a boy with Down’s syndrome is physically abused has also stayed with me as much as anything more bloody in The Tribe. This is a grim and relentless picture, but necessarily so, given that it realistically depicts life in the Ukraine in such an establishment (presuming that the director’s assertions in interviews can be believed).
It can of course be read as a political allegory, with either the school or the gang representing the former USSR (or perhaps even the current government in Ukraine). Indeed the troubled recent history between Kiev and Moscow hangs over the film; Slaboshpytskiy wrote the screenplay in 2011 but has encouraged comparisons with the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and the Maidan protests, stating that he was living in Kiev at the time of writing and suggesting that he may have been influenced by ‘something in the air’. The film was also made while the protests and the revolution were taking place. We see the national flag in various places, and the golden stars of the European Union appear regularly too; interestingly in one classroom a map of Europe highlights Ukraine’s proximity to the rest of Europe, emphasising it over the country’s border with Russia, while during the film Italy becomes a kind of excitement-inducing ‘promised land’ of fashion, fancy food and wealth. However the director is keen to show that freedom of movement from one country to another is a privilege that is not enjoyed by many Ukrainians, and the allegorical plot seems to be suggest that there are barriers other than money and bureaucratic red tape to prevent people from migrating or travelling freely.
However difficult it may be, I long to experience films like this, that feel so different to the majority, that starkly contrast with much of the turgid crap that gets released each year or those average movies that get wildly overpraised. The Tribe is undoubtedly a visceral film and a difficult one to sit through at times for several reasons, but this is obviously a story by a strong voice, it is well acted, and watching it is a fascinating and immersive experience. It affected me in ways that few films have done in recent years, while the use of sign language is absolutely, categorically not a gimmick.
Directed by: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy.
Written by: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy.
Starring: Hryhoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Roza Babiy.
Cinematography: Valentyn Vasyanovych.
Editing: Valentyn Vasyanovych.
Running Time: 133 minutes.