I’ve certainly never seen any film like The Tribe before. It’s one of those films that manages to tick an absurdly specific box: this is a Ukrainian high school crime drama that is told entirely in sign language. And I mean only sign language, as a helpful disclaimer before the film informs us ‘there will be no subtitles, voice-overs or translations’.
We follow a boy (Grigory Fesenko), the credits tell us his name is Sergey, we wouldn’t know otherwise. He arrives at a decrepit high school for the deaf in Kiev. It’s a boarding school, but his introduction makes it feel more akin to a prison. He’s initially shunned and bullied by other boys before managing to gain some footing with them after one high in the pegging order takes a shining to him. It soon appears that the students are running a number of small criminal enterprises out of the school, including petty theft and pimping out two girls at a local truck stop at night.
The prison comparison further seems apt as I found this film often reminiscent of Alan Clarke’s brutal borstal drama Scum, as the new arrival soon begins to rise up the ranks. As in Scum, director Myroslav Slaboshpytsky employs no soundtrack at all, creating a tough atmosphere and here mirroring the lack of spoken dialogue. He does not seek to replicate the experience of the characters though, we still hear all the incidental sounds that they, sometimes very importantly, do not.
Slaboshpytsky’s filmmaking style is otherwise similar to a couple of recent European ‘art-house’ trends such as the Romanian New Wave. He uses very lengthy Steadicam takes, often lasting for many minutes at a time. There are admittedly a couple of occasions where he appears to be falling into the typical art movie approach of holding a shot for an unnecessarily long time as if just to test his audiences’ patience. The opening shot for example is of a bus stop, it tells us basically nothing but lasts for what felt like many minutes. Later there’s a scene of a few characters drinking vodka that also seems a little excessive and repetitive.
His long takes are employed with great skill later in the film though, leading to a couple of the most shocking and unforgettable sequences in recent memory. The sudden explosions of brutal violence contained within are all the more startling due to them appearing in the midst of unflinching, extensive shots. All the more impressive considering the practical effects and choreography that must have gone into creating them, and they’re all completely believable.
The stark realism on display here paints a bleak portrait of Ukrainian life for these characters, and it’s only really broken in one moment. As Sergey becomes involved with one of the prostitutes, Slaboshpytsky presents a sex scene in its entirety in a single static shot. As much as I feel like a bit of a sleaze for pointing this out, it’s obvious that they’re just pretending, an attention grabbing moment perhaps (it’s used on the posters) but the only time Slaboshpytsky’s style appears to get the better of him.
It’s pointless wondering whether The Tribe would be as good or unique were it not in sign language, because that’s how it is and how it was designed to be. However it is still worth asking why Slaboshpytsky opted to forego using subtitles. Living in a foreign country, I’ve often been tempted to go see a film where I know I won’t fully understand all of the dialogue, but ultimately decided against it feeling it was somehow unfair to the film. I had no problem here as it was the director’s intent, and while I could get the general gist of what the characters were saying (the actor’s body language does tell us a lot), there were a few times, particularly in the early sections where I could not claim to understand the reasons behind the character’s actions. Interestingly, Slaboshpytsky is himself neither deaf nor a sign-language speaker.
Still, The Tribe is a unique film that takes an approach we’ve never really seen before, and is almost completely successful in telling a suspenseful, shocking story with it. That alone should make it essential viewing for anyone interested in innovative cinema.