Directed by: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy.
Written by: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy.
Starring: Grygoriy Fesenko (Serhiy), Yana Novikova (Anya), Roza Babiy (Svetka), Oleksandr Dsiadevych (Gera), Oleksandr Osadchyi (King), Tetiana Radchenko (Principal).
It is not often when I see a movie that is unlike anything else I have seen before – but Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe certainly qualifies as that. The entire movie involves a group of deaf students in a school for the deaf, and the entire movie is in sign language – that remains unsubtitled for the entire two hour and fifteen runtime. The students – and those around them – are often having lots of conversations, but as an audience, we have no idea what they are saying – and have to pick up everything for body language and actions. That the movie never becomes confusing is amazing – that it almost doesn’t rely on silent movie type overacting is perhaps even more so. The specifics of the conversations are unknown to the audience, but if you are paying attention – and the movie requires you to do so – you will be able to keep up.
The movie opens with the arrival of Serhiy (Grygority Fesenko) at a school for the deaf in the Ukraine, where he is rather quickly initiated into the crime syndicate that thrives there. This syndicate goes well beyond the students of the school – into the administration, and other adults. The kids mug people (brutally beating them) – but there’s more to it as well. Soon, Serhiy is working as a pimp of two of the female students – walking through parking lots with row upon row of sleeping truckers, looking for customers. Almost as quickly as Serhiy gets into the syndicate, he pisses them off – by developing feelings for one of the teenage prostitutes, Anya (Yana Novikova) – and getting in the way of them making money, including their scheme of sending the two girls to Italy. This is not something that can be allowed to stand.
Amazingly, this is Slaboshpytskiy’s debut film. The filmmaking on display in the film is confident an assured. Slaboshypytskiy favors long takes – often unmoving shots where characters have long conversations with each other, that we are left on our own to interpret, and just as often tracking shots, as we follow the character – most often Serhiy – as he either stalks the halls of the dorm, or other places. The camera never looks away at the often brutal violence on display in the movie. Be warned, the violence in the movie is extreme – Slaboshypytskiy is clearly a fan of filmmakers like Michael Haneke and Bruno Dumont, who often use the same sort of shocking, yet matter-of-fact, violence on display in The Tribe. Even for a viewer like myself – who has seen a lot – some of the scenes in The Tribe tested my endurance – particularly a scene where Anya visits an apartment (you’ll know which one I mean if you ever see the film). The finale of the movie culminates is shocking, yet inevitable, violence.
What the movie does a great job of establishing is the insular nature of the system that these kids become embroiled in. There are few interactions throughout the entire movie with the hearing/speaking world - and when there are, Slaboshypytskiy’s camera remains outside, looking through a window for example, so we don’t hear what is being said. The kids are essentially cutoff from the outside world – even their principal is involved – which helps to explain why everyone seems involved in the syndicate, and why no one can get away. Where else are they to go? The consequences for rebellion in such a closed off society are extreme – as the movie well shows.
Despite the fact that there is no dialogue in the film, it should be pointed out that The Tribe is not a silent film. Its sound design is actually quite intricate – every sound we hear has been chosen specifically, and at times heightened. They are the type of sounds that are usually background noise in a normal movie (if the sound mix hasn’t removed them entirely).
If there is a problem with The Tribe, it is perhaps that the story itself doesn’t quite live up to the virtuoso filmmaking on display. I’m not sure Slaboshypytskiy is really doing anything all that terribly new in the storyline, and some have argued the film crosses the line into exploitation – a complaint I do not share, mainly because I don’t anything we see is meant to titillate. But the film is a hefty dose of miserable-ism, which I don’t have a problem with, but others will.
Still, as a debut film, The Tribe is masterfully directed, and not quite like any other movie I have ever seen before. That the story doesn’t (quite) match the filmmaking in no ways diminishes the impact of the movie. This is powerful, disturbing filmmaking – by a director who could one day do something even greater.