“There will be no subtitles, dialogue, or voiceover” is our introduction to The Tribe, a surprisingly shocking film about a state boarding deaf-school in Kiev, with it’s own seedy underbelly of crime and Lord of the Flies type brutality. Director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky delves into the miserable and calmly observes the bleak, dog-eat-dog world that is hidden underneath our own expectations.
The Tribe is often difficult to watch, gradually building towards a particularly relentless finale and sustaining Slaboshpitsky’s commitment to never looking away. Everything is observed with an eerie stillness, filling the film with wide-angled one shots that seem to last for minutes on end, creating a dramatic, real-time horror that stubbornly sees things through until the viewer is, in some cases, a squirming mess. Even when you want, or expect, the camera to look away, Slaboshpitsky is there forcing you to watch this cold life unfold.
We begin with Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a semblance of a protagonist who is seen asking for directions to the school at a bus stop. The portrait is set and doesn’t move, observing from the other side of the road while Sergey wordlessly converses with a helpful elderly lady. This is our chance to adjust to the format; to learn to piece together the narrative from gestures, body language, and sign language. The loud roar of Kiev’s busy traffic let’s us know that The Tribe will not be silent despite no subtitles or dialogue. The delicate movement of the characters and their gestures set the tone for each and every scene to be filled with detail, excellently choreographed to force our eyes to dart around each shot.
The few characters that play a part in The Tribe have their own highly nuanced personalities conveyed mostly through body language. For example, in one of only two classroom scenes, there is a character in a slouched and rebellious position; he may be the joker of the central gang, the excessive one who enjoys the violence a little too much. How you watch and interpret these characters depends entirely on your history with cinema and certain archetypes – what kind of body language and which kind of gestures do you associate with certain personalities?
Sergey wastes little time getting involved in the criminal activities organised by the more aggressive boys at the school. Eventually this leads to him overseeing the prostitution of two students at a local truck stop after their original pimp is killed by one of the trucks in a freak accident. After a rather explicit and longer-than-usual sex scene, it’s easy to piece together that Sergey has fallen for one of the girls, Anna, portrayed brilliantly by Yana Novikova.
Punishment and revenge follow, Sergey gradually outed by the group for disrupting their plan to ship the girls to Italy with fake passports. This much of the narrative isn’t hard to piece together, but it’s merely the bare-bones of what seems like a complex high-concept drama. The Tribe is designed to be watched more than once for those who can stomach the graphic nature of certain scenes, on the surface focusing on physical performance and symbolism rather than the actual sign language that is going on between these characters. Re-watching this and trying to keep up with the fast-paced, fluid signing in the hopes of reading more into these people and their motivations is necessary and it gives the film some great replay value.
The purposeful omission of subtitles distances ourselves quite significantly from these characters and the story, reiterating our position – along with the unceremonious cinematography – as merely observing an unexpected crime ring spun into chaos. It’s an aspect of the film that can be easily frustrating, but is quickly atoned for by the detail and – all things considered – beauty with which Slaboshpitsky paces this fascinating tale.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running time: 132 minutes
The Tribe is currently screening at the Sydney Film Festival. Remaining screenings take place on Tuesday 9th June and Sunday 14th June. More information can be found HERE