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New Release Review - THE TRIBE

A teen struggles to fit in at a boarding school for the deaf.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky

Starring: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy



"There's something exploitative about The Tribe's use of sign language as a narrative device, but if it's a gimmick, I can't deny it's one I thoroughly appreciated."



120 years after the Lumiere's train pulled into a station, it's rare to find a piece of cinema that can be genuinely described as unique. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's debut feature The Tribe, however, gives us something we really haven't seen before, an entire movie played out in sign language, bereft of subtitles or voiceover.
A teenager played by Grigoriy Fesenko (due to The Tribe's unique format we never become privy to any character names) arrives at a boarding school for the deaf. All seems innocent at first, as we're presented with the sight of teachers having flowers bestowed upon them by grateful pupils. It's during lunch break that the movie takes the first of many dark turns, as Fesenko is forced to hand over all of his possessions to a gang of boys. The boy's resignation suggests it's a scenario he's all too familiar with. The following day, Fesenko finds himself in a fight with the same gang, but his physical prowess earns him a place in the gang and soon he's off dishing out beatings to unsuspecting victims in late night parks and onboard trains. He also finds himself in the employ of the school's woodwork teacher, who pimps out two of his female students. When Fesenko falls for one of these girls (Yana Novikova), he brings a world of trouble on himself.
The Tribe plays out in 34 long takes over its 132 minute running time, many of which employ complicated steadicam shots. The roaming camera - often floating behind the primary subject of each scene - the lack of music and outbursts of shocking violence, all recall the work of British director Alan Clarke, particularly his 1989 Northern Ireland 'troubles' drama Elephant (and its later Gus Van Sant semi-remake) and the borstal-set Scum. The extended takes give us time to assess each situation, though we often find ourselves drawing the wrong conclusion, the real explanation arriving several scenes later. Watching two teenage girls change their clothes in the back of a van, we initially suspect they've sneaked out of their institution to enjoy a night on the town. The longer the scene plays out, and the tackier the outfits and make-up become, the more we come to realise this is a far more sinister development.
Suspense, and indeed much of drama as a whole, relies on the audience having an advantage over the fictional characters. In this case we have a considerable advantage, and this is one movie where shouting at the screen certainly won't help anyone. At the same time, the film's characters have a similar advantage over us, always several steps ahead thanks to our lack of fluency in their language.
As revolutionary as its premise is, what's most refreshing about The Tribe is how it doesn't patronise its characters' disability by portraying them in the usual holier than thou fashion. Slaboshpitsky's film is as misanthropic as it gets, and none of its characters are remotely likeable. This doesn't prevent us from becoming invested in them; while we may be disgusted and shocked by the actions of these teens, we do sympathise and empathise with the hell Fesenko and Novikova find themselves in.
It would be wrong of course to describe The Tribe as dialogue free. It contains almost as much dialogue as the average film; we're simply not privy to it, unless of course you speak Ukrainian sign language. This raises the question of how different an experience the movie becomes for those who can decipher its words. No doubt this will have huge appeal for deaf viewers, but for them it won't be the experimental curiosity it is for the rest of us, and their relation to the narrative will be highly altered as they're exposed to the exposition we're denied.
While The Tribe plays out in sign language, it's specifically designed to be viewed by those who can't decipher it. There's something exploitative about its use of sign language as a narrative device, but if it's a gimmick, I can't deny it's one I thoroughly appreciated. Whether those forced to rely on sign language as a necessity will see it the same way remains to be seen.




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