The Tribe is an inherently complex film that is clearly designed to have a different relationship with the different groups of people who watch the film. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s film sits with a premise that is a genuinely unique cinematic experience, which is increasingly rare in 2015. The film is entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language and no subtitles are provided under the premise that the pain, love and anguish on screen doesn’t require subtitles to be conveyed; and that it would be illegitimate to provide them. Slaboshpytsky expounded on this in broadening his critique of subtitles stating that he believed that they change the way “different audiences [perceive the film] in different countries”. It’s an interesting thesis from the director, but by the conclusion of The Tribe it’s hard to imagine that the experience of the film would have been more shattering, brutal or painful with their inclusion.
Hryhoriy Fesenko plays Serhiy,1 who arrives at the school at the start of the film during an assembly. The introduction is carefully misleading. We’re shown a group of students all lined up in an orderly fashion with a group of teachers conducting the order of affairs. Not more than 10 minutes into the film, this facade completely unravels as the majority of the teachers fade out of view and those that remain exist as complicit in an intricate hierarchy that enforces violence, fear and terror on its lower rungs. The main setting of the film is a dilapidated school; paint falling off its monochrome walls, cold toned hallways that wind into equally lifeless bathrooms, bedrooms and classrooms. The environment The Tribe is shot perfectly imitates the emptiness it creates in the students and teachers that live within it. The architectural angst, the claustrophobia that moves through the school and into its inhabitants, and the desolation it exhibits all plays into Slaboshpytskiy’s construction of a measuredly surreal space – that points itself towards a bleaker perpetual mood throughout – adding to the powerful coherency of the film.
The treatment of women in the film is harrowing and often violent, bordering on – and occasionally crossing into – gratuitous on multiple occasions. Slaboshpytsky’s piece is obsessed with long takes throughout the film, with most scenes in the film left to simmer into the audiences consciousness. It positions the viewer to recognise the astounding cinematography, the desolate setting and the compelling performances from a predominantly younger cast. These takes and camerawork give The Tribe its strongest movements, but they also provide the film’s roughest edges; that make recommending such a film inextricably linked with relative personal experience, and the angle from which a viewer is going to approach the work.
Issues including sexual violence, a prolonged abortion scene, and the constant abuse faced by the female characters in the movie make it – at times – very difficult to watch. Anna (Yana Novikova) and Svetka (Roza Babiy) give the most emotional and driven performances of the film, however, although Slaboshpytsky characterises the two as amongst the few sympathetic characters within the film, it often teeters to feel like the director isn’t doing enough. The Tribe is a film that intends to be a very shocking, violent and upsetting film; it wants to convey a Mafiosi-style hierarchy stem, and the abject violence and wreckage that this intricately written and executed patriarchal system leaves in its wake. The male-dominated structure in the boarding school, the constant physical violence between the ruling men, and the sexual trafficking and sickening treatment of women that ensues from the system nails the point of how destructive masculinity can be, however, it keeps hammering in scenes that are likely to scar and upset the audience members The Tribe is trying to make such a point for.
On another level, the film is a technical masterpiece. Both as Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s feature-length debut, as well as the primary amateur-level training of the cast, the outcome of the film is awe-inspiringly precise. Most of the scenes roll off as carefully choreographed, often with tens of students on screen at the same time, moving in violent swarms. The hierarchy is displayed as both stringent and obvious, but rigidly unfair and oppressive at the same time – as the abusive and pathetic male characters scattered throughout the film fight each other in scenes that imitate the cinematography and framing of animal documentaries.
One of more thought-provoking dichotomies in The Tribe is provided in Sergiy Stepanskiy’s role, heading the sound design for the film. The soundscapes of the film mirror the brutality within, with sudden and sharp noises littered throughout. None of the characters speak, and the sound of their actions manifests; the sound attacking one another, storming through the snow, or screaming in pain. This is as present in their environments; the heaving sighs of trucks, the shattering of metal tools, and the ambience of the endless hallways in the film. Naturally this falls hand in hand with Vlad Odudenko’s production design, which is both phenomenal and evocative; sheathed in Valentyn Vasyanovych’s cinematography and editing. The intricate attention to detail expressed and shared by those that helm these roles, and the interplay between them is integral to the overwhelming, tense and consuming atmosphere that The Tribe wears.
There’s a constant question of shock-value throughout The Tribe. It’s making a point that you don’t need to have words to experience love, hate, pain, jealousy and anguish; especially in their extremes. It doesn’t use the fact the characters are deaf as a major point of focus, making a point throughout that sits in stark opposition to films that fetishise and characterise figures with such disabilities as victims. It’s as horrifying, confronting and eerily gripping as any thriller where the characters speak, and considering the amateur-background of most of the performers, the film is even more impressive. But it’s impossible to talk about The Tribe without remaining aware of the extremes the piece engages in to make a lot of its core points. It’s an obvious condemnation of spaces of abject and uncontrolled masculinity, but the scenes it uses to show this are often so desperately confronting that they are very likely to alienate a large potential audience that could be drawn in with a less gratuitous cut of the film. It’s irresponsible to haphazardly recommend everyone go and see a film like The Tribe. It’s not a case of simply saying “this is a technical masterpiece, it’s brilliantly shot, acted, and performed… you should see it” because while the former statements are true, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy has made a film that should be approached with caution and a myriad of disclaimers; there is excessive sexual violence, long take scenes that portray genuinely confronting material, and it is an overwhelming and draining film. It’s a cinematic achievement, and incredible in a wide array of ways. That said, to gloss over the heavy-handed and reckless nature in which the film often conveys its message, and to advocate that everyone see it regardless of the experiences that shape the way they approach such a film is ignorant and lacks the nuance that critiquing such a film really requires.
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