The Tribe (Plemya)
Ukraine (2014) Dir. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
A familiar story can be told in many ways but sometimes it can take just that one particular little twist to make the experience feel unique and completely original. This is the case with Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s feature length debut, a brave film that barely accommodates the audience but is nonetheless an immersive and enriching outing.
Sergey (Grygoriy Fesenko) is the new arrival at a boarding school where he soon learns that the best way to survive is to associate himself with the group of thugs which effective run the school, known as The Tribe. Aside from flexing their muscles around the school premises, the group also indulge in nefarious extra-curricular activities, including stealing, muggings, violence and prostitution.
Having reluctantly proven himself as a solid hand, Sergey is assigned the role of pimp to two girls, one of whom Anya (Yana Novikova), he falls in love with, and tries to dissuade her from taking any more customers, quickly earning himself pariah status among the Tribe.
A standard messed up teenage social drama then, the twist here is that the film is acted entirely in sign language! The cast are all non-professional deaf actors so not a word of dialogue is spoken and the only sounds we hear are diegetic and background noises. Slaboshpitsky has even gone a step further by not including any subtitles for non-signing viewers which is something of a bold retaliation to the numerous film which don’t have subtitles for deaf people!
This fact alone is likely to put a number of viewers off from investigating this film but the truth is that it soon becomes easy to lose yourself in and after a while you don’t even notice the lack of dialogue or explanation for the onscreen antics. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words and Slaboshpitsky is keen to exploit and explore this to its logical conclusion.
Certainly there are a few occasions where it isn’t entirely clear what we are watching but these moments are the exception to the rule, and we are met halfway with the odd prop or location to help us put the piece of the puzzle together. And if something isn’t made explicit then it presumably wasn’t important enough to warrant our attention or Slaboshpitsky didn’t feel the need to explain.
It’s clear from the onset that the boarding school is not a pleasant place and despite being a bespoke institution the rambunctious and rebellious teenage lifestyle isn’t any different just because the pupils can’t hear. When Sergey first arrives and is shown to his room, he is deliberately taken to a girls’ room instead for a laugh. Later in his first class, the obligatory troublemaker/disruptive presence makes himself known almost as soon as the door opens, his behaviour and attitude no different from any class clown.
This is key to the film which makes it both remarkable and unremarkable – it shows us that deafness is not the crucial difference maker when it comes to the person inside, yet it is a wonder to see deaf people in this position and not be depicted in a patronising or deliberately sympathetic manner as a result either.
But there is, with some validity, the chance that some may dismiss this film as using deaf people as an opportunity to show graphic and questionable content using their disability as an artistic façade. That doesn’t mean this was Slaboshpitsky’s intent – if anything this film demonstrates that Slaboshpitsky is a bold filmmaker and, like many of his Eastern European counterparts, would probably have filmed these scenes with a fully hearing cast.
If the near silence and lack of subtitles hasn’t deterred some people, the arthouse approach will alienate others. The opening shot sees Sergey seeking directions to the school at a bus stop, filmed from across the road with buses occasionally obscuring the view. Next when Sergey arrives at the school, an outdoor assembly is taking place which we can see from a distance through the closed doors.
Such a mise-en-scene is already considered pretentious by some audiences and these examples do provide a small portent of things to come, but it’s not all so bad. Shot on a single camera there are no cutaways or opportunities for editing, so the cast are all on their game to deliver their performances in one take. Considering many of the scenes are edgy, emotionally fraught and even uncomfortable to watch, let alone perform, the cast do earn our respect and admiration for such impressive turns.
Regardless of the cast’s hearing abilities this is a dark and uncompromising film that shares with us the troubled lives led in the Ukraine – hardly surprising considering current events – which in reality are no different from others across Eastern Europe. It certainly can stand alongside the works of Cristian Mungiu or Cristi Puiu, in terms of mood, style and unflinching approach to its subject.
Slaboshpitsky therefore paints a familiar picture with rather broad strokes but the impact is by no means lessened. An abortion scene is particularly difficult to watch, the whole process shown from start to finish albeit from a discreet distance, while the climax is one of the most chilling and clinically realistic in its brutality as I’ve ever seen.
The Tribe isn’t a film that intends to raise any questions or deliver answers, choosing to capture the dark underbelly of Ukrainian society and holding a mirror up to a world people would no doubt rather ignore. Accusations of this being a plea for pity are as spurious as they are uncharitable, the frankness shown is devoid of the requisite cynicism for such a shallow gesture.
If the deafness of the cast is viewed as a gimmick to sell the film then it is an effective one, deserving praise for challenging convention but it easily stands on its own merits. However this won’t be for everyone so only those with open minds who enjoy a challenge need apply.