The Tribe Review
With an opening title card declaring that, “This film is in sign language. There are no translations, no subtitles, no voice-over,” you would be forgiven for feeling a bit of trepidation when you first sit down to watch Ukrainian film The Tribe (Plemya, 2014). And yet as soon as it begins, you will be surprised by just how much understanding can be grasped simply through the use of images and actions – a universal language that is used to make us aware of the unfolding story, but designed to still keep us locked out of the secret and sinister world of the ‘tribe’ of the title.
Set in a boarding school for deaf children, that use of sign language is more than a little pertinent, adding an extra layer of realism to proceedings that immediately draws you into the plot despite the lack of spoken words. Yet Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s perfect execution of this radical idea is the reason the film works so well, the writer-director using this method to cleverly reflect the world of the school and the children who attend it. This is the world in which a newcomer to the school (Grigoriy Fesenko) suddenly finds himself thrown into, the boy quickly learning that the best way to survive is by integrating himself with the menacing tribe of classmates who are up to more than just smoking behind the bike sheds.
What is even more effective than the simple lack of verbal language is the engaging direction, Slaboshpitsky creating a mesmerising pace through the use of elegant, flowing long takes. Not only are these stunning to witness (one such brilliant moment is an extended take in the back of a moving van) but they also add a dreamlike edge to the whole film, resulting in an overall beautiful, surreal piece that feels as if it takes place in its own self-contained world. The fact that it is never declared what year this happens in further emphasises this, creating a strangely timeless aspect to the setting and story as well.
Despite this serenity that flows throughout, The Tribe is also interspersed by sharp moments of true horror – moments that increase in their length and occurrence as the plot slowly turns to chaos and the world of the tribe falls apart around them. These scenes are often extremely hard to watch, shot as they are in the same realistic manner Slaboshpitsky uses for the rest of the film. This realism is also achieved through the use of non-professional actors, something that lends these harrowing moments, as well as a number of sex scenes, an almost invasive quality. One of these scenes is particularly brutal and difficult to watch, the realism and the violence almost becoming too much to bear. Yet as distressing as this and many of these other instances are, they are all necessary in order to show the devastating effect the tribe has on certain characters’ lives.
As the plot becomes murky, so does our full understanding of what is actually happening in the storyline. Yet this is the beauty and the boldness of The Tribe, and what makes this such an intriguing film to watch. The slow-moving action matched with a long running time might drag in one or two parts, but these are soon forgotten about when the true horror of the tale begins to emerge. A beautifully shot and directed film with an effective central premise, The Tribe is a powerful, surreal piece that is surprisingly gripping despite its lack of words. The overall result is simply an incredible achievement in filmmaking.