The Tribe is a brilliant formal achievement that marks Ukrainian writer-director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky as a filmmaker to watch. It takes place at a boarding school for deaf children, with all the roles played by deaf performers; the dialogue is entirely in Ukrainian sign language, and there are no subtitles or narration to translate the conversations for hearing viewers. (Even those schooled in American Sign Language will be baffled.) Slaboshpitsky uses ingenious strategies to draw the audience into the characters' world while respecting fundamental differences between the deaf and the hearing. The film, his feature debut, is never less than tantalizing, bringing us close enough to the subjects to inspire fascination but not close enough to establish thorough understanding. For hearing viewers, Slaboshpitsky approximates the experience of being deaf, and in that regard the film is a valuable provocation.
At the same time, The Tribe is a consistently lurid movie that feels as much like a seedy exploitation film as an art film. The plot centers on underage prostitutes, and during the final half hour Slaboshpitsky trades in scenes of appalling violence. He clearly has things to say about group psychology and systemic corruption, yet he presents these subjects so grotesquely that his ideas will likely be lost on more squeamish viewers. I'm not sure whether the film's accomplishments, formal and otherwise, justify the ugliness of its content. But I've been unable to stop thinking about it, which is a sign that Slaboshpitsky is doing something right.
What makes The Tribe such a remarkable piece of filmmaking is that Slaboshpitsky's showy techniques rarely feel arbitrary; every cinematic device serves his mission of relating deafness to a general audience. That's especially impressive considering that he makes extensive use of techniques rendered familiar, if not banal, by much recent European art cinema: wide shots, long takes, and a score devoid of music.
The wide shots often illustrate how deaf people interact with each other. Slaboshpitsky generally keeps his camera a few yards away from his subjects so that they appear in the frame from head to foot. This allows us to appreciate how the characters use their entire bodies when communicating with each other and allows Slaboshpitsky to present entire groups of characters as they converse. The director frequently shows multiple conversations in the same frame, which results in what might be termed a visual polyphony. More importantly these shots reveal how the characters instinctively cluster together, often standing in semicircles so that everyone can see what everyone else is saying. These arrangements, which suggest tribal formations, provide an explanation for the characters' wicked behavior: when people think as a group, they're more likely to do things they wouldn't think to do as individuals.
Slaboshpitsky's long takes are particularly masterful. Every scene in The Tribe unfolds in a single shot, typically containing multiple complicated actions. This allows Slaboshpitsky to show how his characters react to each other in real time, emphasizing their group dynamic. Even when there are relatively few characters onscreen, the device feels purposeful. By not cutting within scenes, Slaboshpitsky makes one feel trapped in time along with the characters, which heightens the building sense of claustrophobia. (The director may well have been inspired by such recent Romanian breakthroughs as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.) The depictions of brutality—which range from a mugging to a multiple homicide—can be difficult to watch, because you know Slaboshpitsky won't cut away from anything until the scene is over.
Film music can cue viewers as to what happens next, so the absence of music in The Tribe heightens the suspense. A film score can also provide clues about how to "read" characters; without it, viewers must scrutinize the images for behavioral cues. Because Slaboshpitsky often presents multiple conversations at once, one watches the film in a state of increased awareness, scanning the frames from side to side so as not to miss anything. In fact The Tribe is such an immersive viewing experience that I soon forgot about the lack of music; I was too wrapped up in the complexity of the images.
Unfortunately some of Slaboshpitsky's images pulled me out of the story. Every 15 or 20 minutes he indulges in some shocking set piece that stops the narrative dead. In fact the story is so basic that I couldn't help but wonder if Slaboshpitsky had devised it merely as a vehicle for the shocks. Not long after the setting and major characters are introduced, we learn that a group of upperclassmen and one of their teachers are prostituting a couple of female students at a truck stop at night. Slaboshpitsky cuts from an unpleasant scene of dorm life to a more unpleasant scene of the two girls changing outfits in the back of a van. The shot continues as the van stops and the girls get out with a male classmate to solicit drivers at different parked trucks. They behave casually, as though this is a ritual they've performed many times. One flinches not just at the girls' exploitation but at their callous acceptance of it.
Much of The Tribe concerns another student's initiation into the school's culture of exploitation. The main character, identified in the credits as Sergey, is a new student who falls under the influence of the school delinquents and ends up assisting in their prostitution racket. At the beginning of the film Sergey looks like an innocent, with his boyish appearance and tentative body language. Yet it takes only a few schoolyard fights to reveal his violent nature, as he strikes back at the delinquents and strong-arms his way into their clique. By the middle of the film he seems like a hardened thug, joining a group of students on a train as they beat a man senseless and steal his money. (Spoilers follow.)
Sergey has mixed feelings about participating in the group's criminal activities after he falls in love with one of the prostitutes, whom the credits identify as Anya. He starts having sex with Anya after becoming her pimp, though physical intimacy makes him possessive of her. He soon tries to prevent her from having sex with customers, yet by obstructing the racket, he gets himself ostracized from the group. Sergey goes crazy after being rejected by the tribe; the film ends with him raping Anya in a jealous rage, then murdering his four ex-friends in cold blood.
Slaboshpitsky rubs our noses in the brutality of all this, presenting the sex scene, the rape, and the murders in unflinching long takes that leave virtually nothing to the imagination. (Each of these scenes lasts over five minutes, as does another that shows Anya undergoing an illegal abortion in a filthy apartment.) These sequences are commanding, yet they tell us little about the characters' power dynamic that we don't get from much subtler scenes in the schoolyard. The big lesson, I suppose, is that deaf people can be just as brutal as anyone else. That may sound obvious, but when you consider how few movies have any deaf characters at all, any insight The Tribe provides is novel indeed. v