If someone were to tell you that the film you were about to see was done in complete sign language and without the assistance of subtitles or voice-over narration, how would you react? At this year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, where headlining features have been more about the extreme body count, the most hypnotic viewing experience may very well be the Ukrainian sign-language drama The Tribe.
This debut feature from director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy is something that will not be embraced by casual audiences who would find it too arthouse-y and only to be adored on the festival circuit. But believe me, Slaboshpytskiy brings seriousness to his story about a deaf student transferring to a new school that teaches him less about the three “Rs” and more about crime and unattainable love.
A winner of three awards as part of the Cannes Film Festival (including the Critics’ Week Grand Prize and Visionary Award) the film would ultimately be picked up by Drafthouse Films, the micro film distribution arm of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, a label that has curated an eclectic brand of films over the last few years.
In what can best be described as cinematic expression in its purest sense, taking viewers to a time before the major milestones of cinema’s history to one more representative of silent films, The Tribe revolves around a dilapidated boarding school for deaf children, the plain, outside walls made colorful with the graffiti that serves as decoration. Some of the older students have formed a society, which is either ignored by the authority figures in charge of the school or aided by those teachers looking to pad their stipends. These boys – hooligans, really – resort to petty thievery, dealing drugs and prostituting a few of the older girls at a nearby trucking lot.
Enter Sergey – the new kid.
He is the vessel to which the audience first navigates through the school. As the new kid Sergey is the object of bullying and exclusion, until he slowly reveals a malevolent streak. Having known prior to the start of The Tribe that it would be told in complete sign language without the accompaniment of subtitles or voiceover (upon picking up the US distribution rights Drafthouse Films has added a disclaimer informing viewers of the fact) there is still a curve to be learned as we try to understand their “language.” Slaboshpytskiy’s choice of shotmaking in the early stages, where he positions the camera in a wide shot at the back of a classroom as we see a teacher and insolent student engage in a heated argument, is profound showing his strokes of brilliance his first time at the helm. Quickly, we look more towards body language and expressions to gauge the meaning behind the signs.
Incorporating stedicam photography as part of several long-take sequences, the visuals are complimented by a sound design that picks up the sounds we normally take for granted due to the noise being drowned out by voices. This only heightens our awareness of how much reliance we have on the spoken word.
It is worth noting that during the initial press screening at the festival there was something wrong with the sound mix, so myself and others in attendance watched the first 25 minutes in muted silence. Had the film not abruptly stopped and restarted from the beginning, where we could now hear the cacophony of city buses and the muffled impact of footsteps on pavement, it would have been easy to assume that Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy had intended for his debut to be completely muted so that viewers not only had to watch a sign-language only feature but to also feel like the characters therein.
The spoken-language-free set up of The Tribe helps to explore the manner in which we use language to express and conceal. As the film progresses so does the animalistic nature of the mini-society that rules the school. Considering the criminal underbelly that exists violence is to be expected. While it may be tamer than other films at Fantastic Fest, its swiftness and explicitness is rather resounding and also uncomfortable. There are a few key moments of brutality but it would be a disservice to reveal much more save for one. Let’s just say the most agonizing visual involves fellow student Anna screaming and whimpering as she has a “procedure” done.
In these moments Slaboshpytskiy doesn’t get creative with the camera. He leaves it wide on a steadicam shot, only to pick up the action following a character already present or just out of frame. His approach is novel, allowing his cast of non-actors to not be burdened with have to hit their marks take after take. The long takes that are incorporated is a technique I wish more filmmakers would do. But if that were to happen, I’m sure I would begin to dislike its overuse. Nevertheless, Slaboshpytskiy’s deftness in switching between stedicam to locked shots makes me appreciate the film so much more.
As much as I praise The Tribe, I know I’m unlikely to convert those who will dismiss it for having a gimmick (it doesn’t), is too foreign (well, it is set in Ukraine), or too arthouse (that’s okay, I like art). But I’m hopeful that when others discover it – either in 2015 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas or on home video – it will be embraced as a brilliant film. Having gained support from director Darren Aronofsky, who saw it in Toronto as part of its festival this year, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy is fantastically talented and I’m already anticipating what he does next.
Writer/Director: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy Notable Cast: Grigory Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Alexander Osadchiy, Alexander Panivan
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!