Few directorial debuts in recent memory leave quite such a stark impression as Ukrainian newcomer Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s bleak, daring and resonant The Tribe. Set at a boarding school for deaf-mute children, the film follows a group of youths who have taken to fending for themselves in a manner both feral (as the title suggests) and ruthlessly shrewd, capitalising on whatever they have at their disposal, be it opportunistic muggings or the prostitution of their own to indiscriminate truckers. The supervising adults are either absent or are themselves enablers, in on the take. So far so gruelling. Slaboshpitsky’s audacity comes from his decision to play all two-hours and change of The Tribe without subtitles, inter-titles or other forms of translation. He therefore has to convey his tale of youth in revolt on purely visual terms. Unless you’re lightning-quick and savvy with your signing, you’ll have to rely on the director’s gift as a storyteller to make it through.
As though taking it one step further than the likes of Miguel Hazanvicius, whose cutesy The Artist bent the rules but wooed the public, Slaboshpitsky sees his idea through by stripping away further emotional cues from the viewer. There is no incidental score to guide our sensibilities, nor source music to speak of either. Even on the very, very rare occasion that someone outside of the school speaks, they’re always muted by the sounds of their surroundings, drowned out or, if in numbers, made to sound like so many squabbling pigeons. The Tribe is totally unforgiving in this regard. You’re left purely with actions and their consequences. A reverent, hypnotic quiet in which to succumb. Predominant sounds you’re likely to hear are doors opening and closing, the soft crunch of snow underfoot and, eventually, pitiful sobs. Some of these last might be your own.
As intimated above, having set himself these attention-grabbing restrictions, Slaboshpitsky isn’t about to spool us some cosy fireside yarn. The Tribe is a daunting, matter-of-fact examination of a marginalised portion of society left to it’s own devices with no moral compass. Our nominal guide through this arena is newcomer Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko). Upon arrival he seems like a relative weakling, someone with whom we are intended to sympathise with easily as the underdog being fed to the wolves. A little experience, however, reveals otherwise. The children assemble outside and watch as Sergey tussles with several of his peers at once, doing whatever he can to fend them off. What one initially reads as bullying is revealed as something else entirely in a subsequent scene which shows that Sergey is now part of a gang who follow and rob a local citizen, beating him cruelly in the dark. Sergey was being tested to see how useful he might prove to be. The answer is very useful indeed.
When an accident befalls the group’s chief pimp, Sergey is promoted. It is in his new role that he comes to develop feelings for Anna (Yana Novikova), attempting to reconcile his burgeoning hormones with the abnormal sexual transactions he finds himself surrounded by. Despite initial reservations Anna reciprocates Sergey’s affections, however this goes against the rules of the group and Sergey runs the risk of becoming an outsider again as Anna and her sole female companion (Rosa Babiy) begin the process of emigrating to Italy.
To the unsuspecting reader this might sound like little more than a skewed take on a traditional romance, but The Tribe bends to no such sentimentality. Sergey’s motives are merely the trigger for the film’s difficult second hour in which the values of opportunism instilled by the pack become its very undoing. And there is a tribal nature to the relationships here; a set of unwritten rules that allow everyone their place. The two young women, for example, seem for the most part content with their lot as sexual objects, enjoying the ritual of readying themselves for their potential suitors. Everyone has a part to play in a structured society that perpetuates from a grim collective understanding that, for now, this is their lot in life. The girls see a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of their migration to Italy, and so they acquiesce to the toll they must pay to get them there. It paints a broader picture of the troubled present in the Ukraine; a country still undergoing a massive cultural shift in identity between the great behemoths of Russia and Europe.
Having said that, Slaboshpitsky does nothing here to suggest that this depiction of tribalism is solely caused by his subjects’ disability. Not for a second do you get the impression that he intends to tar all deaf and deaf-mute people with the same brush. This is a specific story maintained by a specific set of circumstances. If there is a greater allegory, then it is for the state’s knowing neglect of it’s most vulnerable citizens, something which sadly resonates universally in tandem with Slaboshpitsky’s purely visual storytelling. And while back on that subject, it’s worth praising the frequently astonishing camerawork from director of photography Valentyn Vasyanovych, whether roaming skillfully after the young reprobates or holding for excruciating extended takes from a icily detached remove. At it’s best, it gives The Tribe the feel of a lost Kubrick film, a sensation that resonates all the more with the dim view of humanity that echoes through the boarding school’s cold hallways.
The Tribe is riveting then, if occasionally a little too punishing (a literal backroom abortion had me clawing at the arm-rests, while the film’s finale does for bedside cabinets what Irreversible did for fire extinguishers), yet the startling ambition of the film is undeniable, the weighty act of watching it destined to linger long in the memory.