If you’ve been a follower of my reviews, you know I like movies that challenge me. When I heard about an edgy Ukrainian film that was leaving audiences around the world speechless, I was intrigued.
THE TRIBE is unlike any film you’ve ever seen before. It tells the story of a young man who enters a boarding school for the deaf. But this is no ordinary special needs school. Here, the older students have formed a gang that is heavily involved in petty crime and prostitution. The young man – Sergey (whose name we only know from the closing credits) – gets inducted into this “deaf mafia” and, following a tragic turn of events (the story’s only bit of black humour), he becomes the pimp-protector to two of his female classmates who service the drivers at the local truck stop. As he starts to develop feelings for one of the girls, loyalties are questioned and decisions are made in the heat of the moment leading to disastrous consequences.
If THE TRIBE sounds like a cross between LORD OF THE FLIES and EASTERN PROMISES, you’d be more than a bit off. THE TRIBE’s dialogue is all done in Ukrainian sign language. As you learn from the opening scene, there are no subtitles and no voiceovers. There is no soundtrack or score either, and the only sounds to be heard come from the world around the students. If you are not familiar with sign language, let alone Ukrainian sign language (i.e., the vast majority of us), you are forced to glean whatever you can from the characters’ body language and facial expressions, and from their location. Take your eyes off the screen for just a moment and you will be lost.
Scenes are long – at times tediously so – but they need to be so that you can gather as many cues as you can. Any initial confusion will eventually disappear as you start to find your place interpreting the students’ rhythms and rituals. (Keen viewers will even come away having learned how to sign a few expletives.) However, just when you begin to feel even slightly comfortable, the story will jar you with its harrowing scenes of sheer brutality.
THE TRIBE is the debut feature film from writer/director by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, who found inspiration for the story in his own life. When he was young, he said he was fascinated at how the students who attended a local school for the deaf were able to communicate with each other. “[They] were directly exchanging feelings and emotions without words – and it really impressed me,” he said in a recent Rolling Stone interview. Later, as an adult in the 1990s, he covered the “deaf mafia” as a crime reporter. These were a group of town bosses who would control life in their own communities, providing for their own people who had been marginalised from the larger society.
THE TRIBE is not for general consumption. If you’re the type who cannot get through a meal without checking your mobile phone a couple of times, this film will not be for you. THE TRIBE demands your complete and undivided attention for just over two hours. Its grittiness will shock you so be prepared to be tossed out of your comfort zone more than once. But if you’re up for the challenge, you will be treated to a cinematic experience like no other.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 32:00.)
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