Note: This film features no spoken dialogue, nor subtitles and is presented entirely in Russian Sign Language.
In Ukraine, college-age student Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) enters a specialized boarding school for the deaf. Over the course of his stay at the school, he encounters “The Tribe”, the student gang that’s immersed in the seedy world of crime and prostitution. After passing their hazing rituals and earning induction into the group, Sergey gradually works his way up the chain of command, but soon finds himself in deep after breaking an unwritten Tribe rule of falling in love with one of the prostitutes, Anna (Yana Novikova).
Ah – that’s Eastern Europe for ya. Those Ukraine girls really knock you out.
The Tribe is a film that’s been on my radar for months now, and is my annual flick pick to get the big fat disclaimer of “NOT FOR EVERYONE”, clearly winning that distinction by a mile. Regardless of what everyone’s perception of the film is, you gotta give writer/director Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi (say that five times real fast) props for having the balls to pitch a dialogue-less, subtitle-less film communicated solely through sign language to the studio.
Yours truly here knows a little bit of sign language, having took a year of it in high school and a semester in college. I’m certainly not fluent (I’m not the type of hipster that takes one semester of sign language in college and then all of a sudden acts like they’re Helen Keller), and rely heavily on the crutch of finger-spelling, but between what I know combined with finger-spelling the alphabet, I can carry a conversation, albeit slowly, with a member of the deaf community. Still, even the most fluent signers in the country will find themselves just as in the dark as those who don’t know a lick of it considering that like any other spoken language, American Sign Language is different from the Russian Sign Language used in the film.
All that out of the way, I loved this movie. I gotta hand it to Slaboshpytskyi. Prior to The Tribe, it was nothing but short films for him, and it’d be understandable if he wanted to start out a feature-length film career with something – I don’t know, a little less daring. Nope, he just jumps in the deep end, but his execution is so spot-on. You’d think, knowing the gimmick, that this would just fly over the heads of anyone that isn’t some bull shit artsy cineaste, but I never once found myself lost or confused by what was going on; in fact, I found that the story became more and more engaging as it unfolded. I’ll even go so far as to say throwing in any speaking characters would’ve diminished the film’s impact (it’s those dagnab Talkies, I tell ya!!). That is a testament to the pitch-perfect casting of unrecognizable but easily discernible faces and their authentic performances, especially a heart-wrenching Yana Novikova. We may not know the words they are signing, but the intensity of their body language and the events surrounding them transcends any language barrier.
Slaboshpytskyi and cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych (who also serves as co-producer and editor) choose to narrate the story through a series of long fixed takes and expertly maneuvered tracking shots that build in intensity as each scene unfolds and winds its way through its course, immersing us into the setting as it does so (the lack of transition cuts also help keep viewers on the same page with the film). One that takes place entirely in the school’s van – or as I like to call it, their “Pimp Mobile” – moves in a way that still has me baffled as to how they managed to pull it off. It’s technical craftsmanship that’s as good as it gets.
The Tribe certainly isn’t for the faint of heart as it pulls no punches with its tale of drugs, solicited sex, cruelty and its consequences that follow. While never gratuitously grotesque, the violence is still unsettling and even more so in the unflinchingly raw way its presented. A certain medical procedure involving Anna isn’t so much excruciating ’cause of what’s taking place – there’s little to no blood shown – as it is her reaction to the procedure, a reaction most notable for being the first and only time audible sounds are heard from one of the students. As brutal as it can get, it’s not as if this is some masochistic, torture porn exploitation flick (though the subject of teen exploitation is obviously explored). The violence is there to enhance the story and its unpleasant subject. The stark brutality of it all is hauntingly poetic.
Think Children of a Lesser God if it had an orgy with West Side Story and Fight Club.
As I said, The Tribe is definitely not for everyone, but this is far from being a cheap gimmick or some non-conformist art-house nut’s desperate urge to show you how “different” they are. For sure, it’s a unique experience, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to the story and here it’s just riveting. It definitely requires patience within its viewers. Slaboshpytskyi goes for broke in ways that make Lars von Trier’s films look like a Happy Madison poop and dick joke factory. But your patience will most definitely be rewarded for those up for the experience.
Bleak, grim and packing an uncompromising punch, The Tribe epitomizes the adage “A picture is worth a thousand words”, hinging completely on the cast’s raw, emotional body language, the striking cinematography and excellent use of natural sound to tell its compelling story. Despite not a single word spoken or subtitle shown, this is a powerful film that speaks volumes.
I give The Tribe an A+ (★★★★).