Set in a boarding school for the deaf, The Tribe is acted entirely by deaf-mute actors who communicate exclusively in sign language. Rather than offering subtitles, though, as one would for any other language, writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy eschews any form of translation, turning the film into a test of visual storytelling, as well as a political project to expand the range of worlds that audiences normally encounter in theaters.
The Tribe opens with Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) arriving to his first day of classes and beginning his initiation into the gang that dominates the school. More than a collection of bullies, though, the gang is a fearsome group that, among other things, beats and robs townspeople for their booze. Two of the female students, meanwhile, work as prostitutes at a nearby truckers’ rest stop. Sergey eventually gets promoted to become their pimp, but he commits the fault of falling in love with one of the girls, Anna (Yana Novikova).
Slaboshpytskiy’s film is energetic and restless. Sergey and his fellow gang members are constantly arguing and fighting, a life that Slaboshpytskiy and cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych capture in long Steadicam and tracking shots. The constant movement of the characters and camera ultimately serves a similar purpose as Aaron Sorkin’s comparable tactics in The West Wing, except that rather than making dry exposition palatable, it keeps us focused on a storyline that we can only ever understand the contours of. That Slaboshpytskiy ultimately succeeds at keeping us engaged doesn’t, however, do away with the problems of making the audience approach these characters through such a layer of incomprehension.
The Tribe never entirely justifies why those who can’t read sign language must experience the story so differently from how the characters live it. It never quite brushes off the obvious question of why, in the effort of putting a marginalized set of characters on screen, we should limit our understanding of them. The film’s second half descends into increasingly explicit and shocking displays of violence, and, in fact, all of The Tribe is defined by either overheated emotions or extreme actions. The immediate effect is attention-grabbing, distressing, and in a few cases also emotionally affecting. But in a film that must work extra to keep us engrossed, it all seems like a simple and direct means to an end, one necessitated not by the story, but by the manner in which Slaboshpytskiy chooses to tell it.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 4—14.