Beyond the banality that Hollywood often produces, there are films that innovate, push the boundaries and find new ways to address and present the medium. The Tribe is such a film, one that is bold, original and presents a new language of cinema in the way we see and hear. Many films claim to present something you have never witnessed before but in the case of The Tribe, this is entirely valid and justified.
Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s debut is set within a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf children where tentative new arrival Serhiy (Grygoriy Fesenko) is plunged head-first into a gang mentality; the teenage bullies rule the school, running an organisation of crime involving prostitution (of their fellow female classmates) and robberies. Serhiy has no option in becoming implicated into the system and goes along with their actions, however when he falls for Anya (Yana Novikova), one of the girls he is assigned to pimp, he creates a dangerous situation, which has destructive consequences. What sets apart The Tribe from others that share a similar lineage is the execution in terms of the way we perceive sound- the film is entirely in sign language with no dialogue, no subtitles and no score, there is only diegetic sound such as traffic and footsteps but this is not done just for gimmickry. The lack of sound creates a form of alienation for the viewer, we are not part of their world, we are observers from afar trying to understand the microcosm they have created, and we see how a group’s feelings of isolation can be transformed into a powerful clan, creating their own law. At the beginning of the film we see the teachers of the school and one classroom based scene of education yet any figures of authority are significantly absent from the rest of the duration, aside from two teachers who are, disturbingly, part of the prostitution racket. The pupils appear to have been left to their own devices, adding to the idea that they have formed their own coda, like a silent movie version of Lord of the Flies, some the tribe’s actions are animalistic, primal and their physicality makes it accessible to understand the narrative in the absence of conventional dialogue.
The sound design of the film is used to acute effect, everything feels heightened, from the violent blows the gang deal to their victims to the sound of scuffing shoes stalking the corridors. In one the of the film’s most harrowing scenes, the spirited but abused Anya has to endure a back street abortion, her howls of pain echo through the screen and into the conscious. Slaboshpytskiy’s direction is fluid and austere, often positioning the audience behind the gang, following their actions as helpless bystanders and the final scene is a master class in the use of a long take, a devastating conclusion to a brutal journey.
The film was screened at the Square Chapel Centre for Arts where a significant portion of the audience were deaf, whose experience of the film would no doubt differ from those who could not read the sign language. It felt like a refreshing reversal that they were inclusive to a medium that often would leave them alienated. Our experience of The Tribe will have been individual but as an audience we all witnessed an unflinching, compelling and deeply dark allegory that will be hard to forget.