Set in a boarding school for deaf pupils in Kiev, The Tribe is a vicious crime film made up of 34 sequence shots. Its violence and general nastiness and possibly the austerity of its aesthetics may be a challenge to some viewers though most challenging of all is the fact that the film seeks to put the hearing viewer in the position of disability. The film has no spoken dialogue, instead the characters communicate entirely in Ukrainian sign language, which goes without subtitles throughout.
The film begins with Sergey (Grygoriy Fesenko) getting off a bus and asking for directions to a boarding school for deaf people. It is unclear (unless, possibly, you are familiar with Ukrainian sign language) if he has been enrolled in this school willingly or not. Almost immediately, Sergey falls in with a gang of older students, who run a series of scams overseen by the school’s woodwork teacher (Olexandr Panivan) – basically everything from selling colourful junk on the streets and on trains to theft and assault and prostitution. Things take an increasingly bad turn when Sergey falls for fellow pupil Anya (Yana Novikova), who moonlights as a prostitute for the gang.
The Tribe is a thoroughly impressive feature debut from writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy – a difficult film entirely worth the investment of time and energy. The camerawork, from the busy tableaux to the beautifully roving Steadicam sequence shots, is fantastic and acts as a perfect way into the story for those without the aid of the dialogue. The camerawork – frequently following the gang through the drab corridors of the boarding house or through the dark streets and truck stops of Kiev – creates a fluid way of assisting the viewer in making the required connections between characters and events. The static sequences are full of dialogues but it is often possible to follow what is being said, simplistically if not perfectly, through the movements and gestures of the characters onscreen.
Equally impressive is Slaboshpytskiy’s cast of deaf, non-professional actors, who convey so much through their mannerisms. One gang member tells us all we need to know about him from his walk and stance, while another stands out as the gang’s potential leader simply from the way he sits amongst his classmates when we first see him. The cast are entirely confident and in command, not even blinking at some of the fairly explicit sex scenes. The film, particularly in its static long shots, resembles a silent film in which meaning is created through the blocking of the actors or the movement of the camera. One fight scene in which the camera tracks the fighters, followed by an ever growing group of spectators, as they walk to a meeting place, do warms up and then start battering one pupil as an act of initiation indicates a lot about the dynamics of the gang’s influence over the school, but also has the technical virtuosity of an extended dance sequence. Filmed in long shot and widescreen, it is also entirely cinematic.
Leaving aside the film’s claims on newness, the film works as both a crime film and as a critique on social malaise – a malaise that has boiled over into the Maidan protest in Kiev, which occurred during this film’s pre-production. The film is gruelling but always utterly convincing – from the swagger of the gang as they walk down a corridor to a disturbing backstreets abortion sequence which does not cut away throughout the entire ordeal. The film shows a clear contempt for uncaring authority figures and for the economic hierarchy based on strength and the threat of violence. It is uncompromising and unsentimental about its characters – just as the world as uncompromising and unsentimental about them. There are difficulties of communication beyond aural evident in the film such as when Sergey attempts at wooing Yana begin and end with waving money at her. As far as I could tell, the characters’ disability is never referred to although one pupil is unexpectedly killed in the truck stop when he stops to light a cigarette in front of a reversing truck – the critique (that aural warning is inadequate as a safety feature for people who are hearing impaired) is left unspoken. In this sequence and in the film’s final and most shocking shot, Slaboshpytskiy shows a vulnerability in his characters due to their deafness, which only goes to highlight further how cruel and exploitative this world can be.
The Tribe then is a unique film and a tough and involving genre piece. The question of whether the decision to present the film without subtitles was an ethical choice or a gimmicky attempt to gain a bit more notoriety before the film’s Cannes premiere and release around the world is ultimately moot so powerful and convincing are the film’s aesthetics and involving is the storytelling and the performances. Brilliantly shot and performed, The Tribe is a grim piece of post-Soviet realism and as beautiful as it is repulsive.