'The Tribe' Doesn't Say Much

The Tribe (Plemya)
(Ukraine, 132 min.)
Written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Starring: Grigory Fesenko, Yana Novikova
There’s a “Two Thumbs Up” joke to make about The Tribe, but this film set in the world of the deaf doesn’t quite merit it. Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy makes a significant debut with The Tribe, which features no audible dialogue and invites the audience to watch drama play out in sign language without the aid of subtitles, translation, intertitles, or narration. The film shows audiences a world and an experience that generally aren’t included on film, so there’s no denying that The Tribe is a bold, landmark experiment. This sensation from last year’s festival circuit, however, is ultimately a bold, landmark experiment that disappoints. Give it the universal sign of one thumb wiggling horizontally between ‘yay’ and ‘nay’.

The Tribe walks audiences into a Ukrainian school for the deaf when Sergey (Grigory Fesenko) walks up to the glass doors of this new institution and waves at the schoolmistress. She gestures for him to go around and Slaboshpytskiy lets the camera rest at the window while Sergey takes the milk route into the school. Fellow students parade in, ringing bells and talking to one another, and as the camera rests like an observer, The Tribe invites audiences into a new film experience. The school itself quickly challenges any expectations that it’s an anomaly as class discussions play out with a mix of attention and boisterousness from the students, and as Sergey quickly aligns with the hierarchy and power dynamics of this pack of teenage wolves. The only difference between the students of The Tribe and that of any urban high school drama is one of language: the social roles, dynamics, cliques, and romps into deviant behaviour are all the relatively similar to other schools. Except perhaps for the ring of teenage pimping and prostitution, which undeniably brings the film into unsettling territory.

This night-time business at the local truckstop gives The Tribe its first gut-wrenching twist—and perhaps its first effective use of the characters’ inability to hear noise—when a big rig backs up over the girls’ schoolmate pimp as he finishes a cigarette while the girls finish their tricks. The audience hears the truck rev its engine and viewers take for granted the beep beep beep of the truck as it reverses. Before one even knows the horror, the truck consumes the boy under its wheels. The sound of the crunch is deafening.

Sergey then begins a downward spiral as he assumes the pimply duties of the school and engages in a power struggle to become the new alpha male on campus. Slaboshpytskiy explodes the mundanity of the episodic glimpse into the lives of the students with bursts of graphic violence and explicit sex as Sergey wrangles with peers and strikes up a relationship with one of the girls whom he prostitutes. The Tribe holds nothing back and Slaboshpytskiy shows more intent on putting audiences through hell than engaging them with these students: unrelenting, uncomfortable (and frankly gratuitous) violence punctuates a disjointed narrative, while the harrowing experience of watching a girl undergo an abortion is not for the faint of heart.

Don’t try to understand the workings of the school or the characters at play—one never learns their names outside of the press notes—even though the expressive work of the actors communicating in sign language offers some access points. One only gets the gist of what’s going on in the film. It's like watching a film in German or French without subtitles, except that the perceived foreignness of the language is the aim. The Tribe doesn’t seem to know what to do with the gap between the sign language and film language though, as it never fully immerses the viewer in the world of Sergey and his schoolmates. The inability of the subjects to hear one another takes a horrifying twist in scenes of rape and murder in which student in the dorm cannot hear their peers become victims, so the lack of vocalization sometimes takes the film to new heights, but it’s not enough to compensate for 132 minutes of protracted observation. The Tribe--no pun intended--doesn't say much.

Slaboshpytskiy shoots the film almost entirely in long take tableaux shots that capture the action from a considerable distance. There’s nary a close-up in The Tribe and the film keeps the viewer detached and distant: one observes The Tribe like one observes a snippet of ethnography or a manmade habitat through a wall of glass at the zoo. Slaboshpytskiy never bridges the subjects’ language with the film language and The Tribe leaves one hoping that the visual power of the film could create a common language between audience and subject. The long takes are impressive, although they struggle to benefit the experimental style and the episodic narrative that already make considerable strains on the viewer. The Tribe curiously plays like a Romanian New Wave wannabe that redeems itself with technical accomplishments and the significance of its onscreen representation. This film wouldn’t cause a stir with a cast of English-speaking actors.

Its soundtrack is significant as the use of background noise and sound effects are strikingly effective, particularly when they substitute for dialogue and function as narrative, thematic, and emotional turns or as provocative exclamation marks. Fists smack faces, testicles slap bums, co-eds pant heavily, and blunt instruments flatten students’ heads in jarring acts of violence. The characters’ inability to hear sound, however, only functions to convey victimization. Therein sits another troubling element of The Tribe that really gets under one’s skin as the film develops: The Tribe isn’t tailored for a deaf audience. With ambient noise peppering the film, though, one always feels like an outsider looking in, trapped and unable to help, paralyzed by the ruse of an experiment.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Tribe screens in Ottawa at The Mayfair and in Toronto and TIFF Lightbox.