The Tribe Review
Violence can be a powerful language. This is perhaps one of the crudest lessons which The Tribe, a Ukrainian sign language film by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, delivers. Set in a boarding school for the deaf, the film (in Ukrainian sign language) tells the story of Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a new arrival, and his integration into the school’s criminal gang, as his friendship with two classmates, Anna (Yana Novikova), and Svetka (Roza Babiy) develops. From the beginning, the director announces that the film will provide no form of translation.
Slaboshpitsky is no gentle storyteller. The Tribe is solely populated by characters who are ruthless, corrupted or both. Events escalate into incredible violence and brute sexuality. The young actors portray cruelty and determination brilliantly; even without understanding the specifics of their interactions, it’s easy to grasp at the undercurrent emotions.
The director’s camera is remarkably honest in the face of all of this human ugliness. Slaboshpitsky favours long takes, mixing between still shots and series of technically challenging movements. His mission, it seems, is to force audiences to watch horrid realities in their completeness, all in a dreary, desolate backdrop.
That backdrop, Ukraine, is given just as harsh a portrayal. The school is dark and gloomy, and beyond it all outdoor surfaces are spoilt with senseless graffiti scribbles (not street art). Nothing looks properly maintained, and no one remotely seems to care. The teenagers at the school are left almost entirely to themselves, and haunt dreary supermarkets, abandoned playgrounds, and endless parking lots. The only adults giving them any attention do so to aid them in their criminal pursuits.
There is however, some beauty in this universe. The physicality of sign language looks stunning on screen, and through this, Slaboshpitsky distils emotions to their purest form. There is something reassuring in the fact that even without a common language, feeling and intent can still be so easily communicated.
The Tribe’s slow pace and gratuitous violence make it a difficult watch. And as all its characters are repugnant, it is a real challenge to stay interested in the story. While Slaboshpitsky clearly wants to focus on the universality of human emotion, it is to the detriment of appreciating the details of the interactions between characters. Nuances are important to comprehending relationships, and so there the film also loses momentum. Despite this, The Tribe is a truly innovative effort with a stellar acting performances and unflinching honesty.