The Tribe is a vicious coming-of-age teen drama set in a boarding school for the deaf; there are no subtitles to translate this completely hand-signed film. Though not a word is spoken, each scene resounds with clarity, and by the end of this film our heads brim with conversation. The result is a new kind of silent movie.
Directed by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, The Tribe opens at a bus stop; a teenager (Grigoriy Fesenko) with a suitcase appears, and pantomimes for directions. He receives them and descends a stairwell to a subway. His destination is a teenage inferno—boarding school. A tracking shot reveals the boy approaching his new home. He peeks in on a school assembly: in the background, a perched Ukrainian flag, one of the few indications of the film’s national setting, which is, by and large, immaterial.
What matters is the landscape of poverty and desperation that the characters navigate. Through hazing, a few classmates absorb the main character into their gang of hooligans, who, with the help of a couple of unscrupulous school employees, traffic contraband and prostitute their co-eds.
What follows is a wrenching, at times abject, and picaresque film. Graphic sex and violence abound, but both are absent from the movie’s most brutal scene. Perhaps Slaboshpitsky amplifies the sex and violence to compensate for the lack of spoken language. However, at only one point, and for good reason, does this approach seem excessively transgressive.
The Tribe earns a place in the canon of teenage vice films, such as A Clockwork Orange and Larry Clark’s Kids, both of which have their own slang: Kids, the New York street talk circa 1994; Clockwork, neologisms, Russian in origin (moloko and devotchka), used by Burgess to preclude his work from being dated. Yet, these two films and The Tribe share a grammar beyond the spoken word: attitude and behavior.
The version we watched lacked the polish of most arthouse films that screen at festivals (The Tribe picked up two awards at Cannes, in 2014); Slaboshpitsky and his cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych furnish a look of a handycam. Though he composes most of The Tribe using wide shots, Slaboshpitsky also employs pans and tracking shots to great effect, eschewing quick cuts.
Authentically qualified, the cast of deaf, non-professional actors is another staggering reason this film is so piercing.
The Tribe is a masterpiece.
By Alec Julian & Carrie White