“An impressive achievement”

by Josh Stillman

The Tribe is certainly not going to win any popularity contests with the wider movie-going public. For one, it’s shot entirely in sign language, without subtitles. For another, it features explicit sex and violence, carried out by a shockingly young, non-professional cast. Needless to say, this isn’t catnip for the hordes flocking to Jurassic World. But these very characteristics are what have the critical establishment tripping over itself with adulation.

The story begins simply enough: a fresh-faced teenage boy (Grigorly Fesenko) arrives at a new boarding school in the Ukraine and must navigate the tricky social and sexual ecosystem he encounters there. The kicker is that it’s a school for the deaf, and there are no subtitles to translate the sign language. Nor is there a score or a soundtrack; the only sound in the movie is whatever ambient noise is in the background (the filmmakers have called The Tribe a modern-day silent film). But this doesn’t mean the movie is distracting or dull. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The absence of subtitles leaves the eye free to roam the screen and focus on movements, body language, mise en scène, and the composition of each meticulously crafted shot. Fortunately, the actors, all of whom are non-professional, deliver performances that are naturalistic and engaging. Sign language is an inherently expressive means of communication, so it’s always clear what’s going, what emotions are being felt and what thoughts conveyed. Besides, the travails of adolescence require little explication: when our protagonist weaves through the cafeteria for the first time, searching among the cliques for a free place to sit, we don’t need subtitles to sense his trepidation.

The Tribe
Written & Directed by
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy
Release Date
17 June 2015
Josh’s Grade: A

The Tribe is also, technically and visually, an impressive achievement. Nearly all of the shots are extended, single takes. Director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, making his feature debut, choreographs the action with fastidious attention to detail so that it unfolds with the seamless realism of a documentary. He has said that the cast and crew would rehearse each scene for more than a week before filming, and that effort yields tremendous results. Witness the camera as it follows the characters out of the building and through the bustling courtyard, then around the corner to a secluded enclave, where an animated conversation and shakedown occurs, all without a single pause or disruption. Director of photography and editor Valentyn Vasyanovych, himself a director of documentary films, composes and lights each frame with an eye for hyperrealism. The hues of the movie are the stark, drab greys and greens and browns of the Ukrainian winter; it fosters the same kind of harsh immediacy as though one of the students were shooting on an iPhone.

But an art-house Mean Girls this is not. Like many great directors, Slaboshpitsky acknowledges and toys with our expectations, shifting the tone and focus of the film gradually and without warning. As a result, The Tribe goes in delightfully unexpected directions, and before we know it we’re ten minutes into an entirely new story arc. The innocuous, occasionally humorous first act morphs into an increasingly brutal tale of initiation into the school’s violent gang, involving acts of theft, prostitution, and physical intimidation. The camera is unflinching, at times totally static, as we watch successive acts of depravity occur. This is in many ways a spiritual sibling to Harmony Korine’s Kids, but without that film’s almost manic exuberance. When the boys in The Tribe assault and rob a salesman on a train, the camera holds fast, a silent witness to a silent crime.

And then, the two teenage prostitutes who have thus far been little more than ancillary are thrust into the foreground for the final third of the movie. Here, the nuances of their relationship and the complexity of their plight assume far greater dramatic significance. This transition contains some of the film’s most layered storytelling, as well as some of the best acting (Yana Novikova and Rosa Babiy are perfectly cast). It also yields what in my eyes is one of The Tribe‘s best scenes, and by far the most excruciating: a long, impeccably performed, and utterly gruesome back-alley abortion. I don’t consider myself particularly squeamish, but it had me writhing in my seat. Watching Yana Novikova undergo the borderline medieval operation was heartbreaking.

Some critics have mistakenly labeled The Tribe a thriller (a bemused Slaboshpitsky pointed out at a Q&A screening that he doesn’t understand this description; to him, and to more astute viewers, it is a coming-of-age drama). While there are indeed periods of graphic intensity, this film is far less about excitement than about immersion. For two nearly silent hours, we are given an intimate and unwavering glimpse into the lives of these troubled deaf teenagers, whose social and emotional lives are every bit as fraught as those of their counterparts with the ability to hear. That they resort to violence and illicit activity to make ends meet is not as difficult to imagine as one might think. In one of the more revealing scenes, the male lead attempts to earn some honest money by engaging in the fruitless and humiliating vocation of selling toys on a train, a trade that is practiced by nearly all of his younger schoolmates. We get the distinct impression that this is one of the few moneymaking ventures available to him as a result of his handicap. So, when he comes across an unlocked compartment and a purse flush with cash, can he really be blamed for ditching his wares and taking the money? We all want the same things in life; for those who are denied them by the cruelty of fate, the answer is often to respond in kind.