On paper, The Tribe sounds like a straightforward thriller with an element of the Dickensian. Teenaged Sergei (Grigoriy Fesenko) arrives at an austere Ukrainian boarding school that resembles a prison, where he’s quickly bullied and hustled by a gang that uniformly runs the institution. After an interminable stretch of being beaten and thrown out of his quarters to sleep on the floor in the school’s hallways, Sergei proves himself in battle, and is welcomed into the tribe’s fold, participating in their robberies, assaults, and, most prominently, their peddling of female students’ flesh to a motley of considerably older truck drivers. Sergei develops feelings for one of the girls, Anya (Yana Novikova), which interferes with the tribe’s business, sending everyone on a collision course.
The Tribe pivots, however, on a high concept that’s intended to be deliberately challenging for all but presumably the hearing impaired and the staunchest consumers of art and genre cinema. The boarding school overrun by the tribe is for deaf students, the entire film is performed in sign language, and there’s no dialogue, narration, voice over, or subtitles to orient those unschooled in signing. The effect of this pointed gesture of immersion is shocking and, for a long while, overshadows anything that’s actually happening in the film. The silence of The Tribe is astounding, leading us to consider just how much we lean on dialogue for comprehension in cinema and television, even if the work in question is visually sophisticated.
Watching The Tribe isn’t a passive experience, then, as one must redirect the way they use their senses to consume cinema. One scours the frames for information, particularly the faces and the hands of the characters. The repetitive narrative is easy to follow. The tribe attacks people, robs them, usually on streets or trains, and bickers over the ill-gotten goods. Many overly long sequences are devoted to the prostitution ring that services the truck drivers, which follows a variety of rituals in which male members of the gang escort the girls to the tractor trailers, knocking on the vehicles to gauge customer interest.
But we, the hearing, are constantly aware of what we’re missing. What are these characters saying to one another with their hands, especially when they’re pleading for mercy or professing love? What nuances are lost by our inability to entirely discern their interactions? Director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky creates an environment in which his hearing audience is placed in a minority position usually inhabited by the deaf. Many viewers will feel as if they’re forever attempting to play catch-up, and it’s terrifying to be so casually robbed of an interpretive stasis.
Yet, The Tribe is also the sort of lurid action drama that tends to reduce the art of dialogue to that of functional second fiddle anyway, and it’s remarkable how much of each scene is explicable through gesture, bringing to mind the assertion that most communication is physical and visual, rather than aural. (Lending one to ponder yet again just what it is we’re doing when we’re chatting online.) Slaboshpitsky composes The Tribe in elaborate tracking shots that emphasize the characters moving within their natural environments, exacerbating our awareness of their corporeality. There’s little noticeable cutting, and there’s no conventionally alternating over-the-shoulder coverage of scenes, which is logical, as that device is usually intended for the presentation of dialogue.
This aesthetic, coupled with the lack of speech, yields an intensely deliberate pace. Every minute feels like three, especially in the first half of the film as audiences are adjusting themselves. But this slowness allows one’s senses to open up, affording us the ability to discern the differences in the signing, in the ways that characters push their emotions through the air with their appendages. Anya’s defensive signing with Sergei is considerably different from Sergei’s heated arguments with the tribe over turf and power. And the lack of speaking renders the audience more sensitive to the sounds that remain, particularly the sudden snap of hitting or slapping, which registers as a heated extension of the more forceful signing. More memorably, one hears the percussions of Sergei and Anya’s bodies slamming together as they have sex, our aural sensitivities attuned to the unusually realistic rhythms of their coupling, which represents solace from the dank, chilly, sleazy, stifling hopelessness of the film’s atmosphere.
The Tribe is ultimately a stunt though, as the characters often anonymously blend into the carefully planned tableaus, suggesting that Slaboshpitsky views them as ants for his bleak sensory deprivation project. There isn’t much of a sense that the filmmaker is actually interested in the lives of the deaf, other than as pretenses for formal experimentation. But the film is powerfully cathartic, allowing human bodies to assume the figurative stage with a prominence that’s rare in cinema.
The image has a pointed, quite intentionally achieved grittiness that merges expressionistically with the heat of the bright colors—a balance that’s superbly preserved by this transfer. Reds and yellows explode off the predominantly gray palette, suggesting the warring emotions that run wild within an insidious war zone. Blacks are rich and whites are textured and subtly differentiated. The image itself, while gritty, is also pristine, allowing the exacting compositions, with their delicate balancing of the various planes of the screen, to achieve the sense of immersion that’s intended as well as pivotal to the narrative. Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack is a feast of diegetic noise, and it’s mixed with split second precision that’s greatly important to the film’s obsession with aural minutiae as a way of life.
The audio commentary with director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky and film critic Devin Faraci is perhaps unavoidably awkward at times, given the language barrier that exists between the men. Still, interesting material is divulged, including Slaboshpitsky’s background as a crime reporter and his methods of stealing shots that included people actually milling about in the frame, rather than extras. Much of the film was shot in sequence, except for the winter scenes, which needed to be captured as snowfall permitted. Shorter, and more illuminative, is the interview with actor Yana Novikova, who discusses her audition for the film as well as working with Slaboshpitsky, a "serious" director who often didn’t sign with the predominantly deaf cast. One wishes generally for more detail pertaining to the cultural challenges of a hearing artist working with mostly deaf actors, though Slaboshpitsky also references the translators, both on and off screen, throughout his commentary. The filmmaker’s short film, Deafness, is also included, and it shows him experimenting with long takes and genre material in fashions that clearly pave the way for The Tribe. Rounding out this sturdy package are trailers and a booklet that includes an interview with Slaboshpitsky as well as portions of the script, which specify the dialogue that’s only signed in the actual film.
A litmus test for cult-film aficionados, The Tribe is a formally audacious genre experiment that’s somewhat lacking in empathy for the culture that provides its pretense for boundary-pushing.