As if going to see a Ukrainian film that is in sign language isn’t enough of a challenge! As director Miroslav Slobshpitsky’s film ‘The Tribe’ starts there is a notice informing viewers that there will be no subtitles. When I read this I felt a sting of panic wondering what I’d let myself into for the next 130 minutes. Suddenly I was immersed in a world with no sound except the occasional noise of people walking, scuffling or breathing. All communication between the characters is through sign language – not even International Sign but Ukrainian Sign Language so most deaf viewers who go to see this film will only understand a small portion of what is being communicated as well. There are no inter-titles or captions of any kind to indicate place, time or plot. You can only watch the action so that, like most deaf people are made to feel in a society built around audible communication, you must constantly piece together what’s happening around you. Of course, this is an alienating experience but it’s also fascinating because it makes you more attuned to people’s actions and facial expressions. Moreover, the eerie silence adds a layer of tension beneath all the action – and there is a lot that happens in this gritty, thrilling drama. I was immediately hypnotised and riveted throughout the entire film.
The story focuses on a teenage boy who arrives at a boarding school for the deaf. Arriving at a bus stop, we see him from a distance gesturing to a woman for directions and communicating that he can’t hear. Once he finds the school we’re cut off from the hearing world completely and immersed in an institution where people only sign. The boy is introduced to the school where class times are indicated by flashing lights rather than bells. There is little authority outside the classroom. During recreational time there are no adults present so that fights between the students are unmarshalled. The dorms seem to be organized haphazardly with teenagers grouping themselves into gangs. The boy is quickly drawn into one particular gang where he’s given the duty of working as a pimp to two girls who prostitute themselves at a local truck stop. The shocking ease with which the characters go through these actions indicates how they are routine for them. The money the boy earns from this job is immediately given to one of the girls to hire her for sex as well. What could be viewed as a voyeuristic scene where the pair awkwardly start to have sex, works movingly as an essential part of the plot where blunt lust slowly transforms into deeper passion through their actions. It’s a subtle shift where the boy becomes enamoured with the girl and is motivated only to be with her. However, the girl is ambivalent about her feelings towards him. Her feelings are complicated further by the discovery that she’s pregnant. She terminates the pregnancy by going to a back alley abortionist in a scene which is one of the most startling and traumatizing things I’ve ever seen. Although she continues to see the boy, she wants to continue on as normal working as a prostitute and joining in a larger plan where she is evidently going to get a passport and papers to be trafficked to Italy. When the boy goes against the gang to stop this there are serious consequences. The ending is horrifically surprising and haunting.
The film works on many levels. It’s a gritty drama that shows what people, especially young disadvantaged people, do under desperate and impoverished circumstances. Like “Lord of the Flies” they make a tribe unto themselves with its own savage laws. As the film is silent the intricacies of all conversations are lost on the viewer who can only get the general gist of what’s being communicated. This makes you think harder about what’s happening and the stark reality of the actions take a firmer hold on the viewer’s attention. All the actors in the film are amateurs cast from a general call-out made by the director to people in the Ukrainian deaf community. It’s impressive how natural the performances are and the degree of subtly of feeling some of the main cast display in such a high drama story. The film has won the Critics Week Grand Prize at Cannes and the First Feature Award at the London Film Festival. The director has orchestrated a story about challenging specific circumstances that have a larger message about humanity. Having dispensed with language completely to say something much more meaningful about the human condition, this is surely a drama that Beckett would have approved of.
‘The Tribe’ is an utterly compelling and original film that will stir strong reactions. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s unlike any other film and a thought-provoking rewarding experience.