By Don Simpson | June 29, 2015
Director: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
Writer: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
Starring: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy, Alexander Dsiadevich, Yaroslav Biletskiy, Ivan Tishko, Alexander Osadchiy, Alexander Sidelnikov, Alexander Panivan
The opening scene of Ukrainian writer-director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe immediately throws us into a bleak, dilapidated, seemingly post-apocalyptic, world. This ugly working class suburb on the outskirts of Kiev appears to be as neglected as the long-abandoned car that rusts and crumbles alongside a bus stop on the busy street. As Valentyn Vasyanovych’s camera observes from a voyeuristically fixed position across the street, Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) exits a bus and enters into this hellish cinematic landscape.
A deaf Ukrainian teenager, we can only assume that Sergey has been exiled here by a family (or society) that is no longer willing to support him. So, when Sergey arrives at a boarding school for the deaf and mute, the view of a cheerful celebration going on through the windows gives the allusion that he has possibly found a safe and caring place — even if the school building itself looks like it has been in desperate need of a facelift (or demolition) since the Communist era — but then a clever Tati-esque visual device suggests that Sergey may need to go great distances before he will be accepted into the group.
The boarding school is a severely insularized universe, one which is run by an unrestrained wolfpack of bullies who participate in illicit enterprises that are orchestrated (or ignored) by corrupt teachers. The head bully (Alexander Osadchiy) ensures that Sergey starts at the bottom of the social strata and will have to deem himself worthy of any societal promotions up the ranks.
Since all of the dialogue within The Tribe is spoken in Ukrainian sign language (and the film oh-so-purposefully neglects to provide subtitles), the film relies upon a familiar narrative structure to enable us to understand what is going on (an approach similar to the silent films of yesteryear). The Tribe uses the trope of tossing an outsider into a boarding school setting in which alpha males jockey for power while weaker boys show unflinching allegiance to whoever is on top of the pile; and just as the boys use violence, the girls use sex as a means to survive.
In The Tribe, sex and violence are the most potent forms of communication. Sex allows Anya and Sergey to create an intense connection that the gesticulations of their language did not allow. Violence proves itself to be a much more powerful communication tool than words (verbal or signed), unleashing a brain-crushing impact that promises to form a permanent imprint on the viewer’s psyche.
The Tribe is presented like a ballet (albeit one without music); the intense, dancelike movements of the cast’s hands and bodies convey more meaning and intent than even the greatest silent film stars. The characters rarely emit any sounds, but there is one particular instance that ends up being one of the most harrowing uses of sound in the history of cinema.
What is most intriguing about The Tribe is the profound political subtext of the hopelessness and frustration of modern day Ukrainian people. As we have witnessed during the Euromaidan protests, Ukrainians feel as though they have been rendered mute and exiled from the Western world — this is in no small part due to their own government’s decision to not associate with the European Union, instead aligning themselves with the Russian Federation. In this context, The Tribe reads like a calling card for a violent uprising, since that is the only way that the Ukrainian proletariat will be heard.
Whether used metaphorically or not, The Tribe goes wholeheartedly against the grain of cinema’s historic representations of deafness. At the risk of possibly exploiting his subjects, Slaboshpitsky chooses to make a film about a demographic that society (and film audiences) has often deemed to be weak and feeble, then empowers them to flex their muscles, becoming the vengeful aggressors to drastic proportions.
There is no denying that The Tribe is a truly unique film and certainly one of the “must see” films of 2015. That said, this tale of revenge fueled by bitter hatred will surely test the stamina of anyone who is brave enough to watch a film with no understandable dialogue (unless, of course, you happen to understand Ukrainian sign language), explicit sex scenes and animalistic brutality. There are no heroes, even referring to Sergey as an anti-hero would be a bit of a stretch. The world of The Tribe is a truly horrible place, one that is cruelly unsettling and promises to be unforgettable.