An unspoken history of violence, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe offers a challenging and controversial but ultimately unfitting parable for the Ukraine.
Screamby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s a fairly simple story; a deaf teenager goes to a boarding school where, against expectation, he falls into a criminal world of pimps, prostitutes, theft and violence. It’s a dystopian, broken world to begin with – from the glimpses of the outside world we see as the new student makes his way from the bus stop to the institute, with rusting cars left on the side of the road and grass growing through cracks in the concrete. And ironically, for a film shot entirely in sign language, this is Ukraine’s scream in cinematic form, exposing a feral existence of life on the ground, shouting out against an absence of leadership or control. Only silenced. And perhaps it’s for this reason that Miroslav Slaboshpitsky refuses to subtitle the sign language spoken by his characters. But is The Tribe any more than just a one-line, high-concept political gesture?
A deaf teenager (Grigoriy Fesenko) arrives in Kiev by bus and makes his way to an institute for the deaf. It’s a boarding school where normal rules do not apply, as bullies rule the roost extorting money out of younger kids, stealing and prostituting girls at the local lorry park. It’s a feral world where money is king, and the criminal plots grow from selling trinkets and toys on trams to trafficking girls to Italy for big bucks. Only the new student swims against the flow, falling in love with one of the prostitutes (Yana Novikova) and deciding to take the ringleaders on at their own game.
All political interpretations aside, choosing not to provide subtitles for the sign language in The Tribe is a decidedly controversial move. We can perhaps forgive the disdainful attitude towards his audience – Slaboshpitsky would hardly be the first to force his viewers to sit through hours of unintelligible footage – but there’s no doubt that the reduction of the deaf community he features into gesturing barbarians is offensive. Depriving his characters of a voice, he transforms them into objects – occasionally to be laughed at, when an expression seems funny, but mostly to be misunderstood, as hearing audiences try to conjecture what might be going on. And while Slaboshpitsky’s story is largely understandable – like watching a film with the sound turned off – there’s a huge strata of detail missing that turns The Tribe into a cacophony of broad strokes, reduced to little more than a spectacle of extreme violence and a single concept.
But perhaps that’s Slaboshpitsky’s point – creating a tribe set apart from the rest of society by a secret language – a seething mass of anger and frustration which, with no integration with the world around them, takes on the antisocial tasks of pimping and prostitution. It’s a universe in miniature, as the new student manages to find a brief idyll of love, or rather sexual intimacy with his chosen girl. And yet incarcerated in a world without prospects, the tribe turn on each other – snapping at each other’s heels and beating each other to death. And while Miroslav Slaboshpitsky transforms his deaf community from victims into self-determining agents of their own destiny, without contact with the outside world or hope for a better future, they’re prisoners of their own fate, consigned to a dog-eat-dog lawlessness, which sees all flickers of humanity subsumed by need and greed. And if it sounds bleak, it’s because The Tribe is – unflinchingly and unremittingly so.
Whether Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe is a high-concept, political polemic or just an arthouse makeover for extreme violence is an argument that’s likely to rage long into the night. It might be challenging, but nevertheless it’s a nasty little film that only finds some redemption in its provenance – a Ukrainian tribe that finds itself marginalised and squeezed. But Miroslav Slaboshpitsky remains mute on how the actual politics of Ukraine are worked into The Tribe’s day-to-day landscape of criminality and violence, his film ultimately falling victim to a high-concept gesture. Frustrating and ultimately unrewarding, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s film may have made a name for its director, but stubbornly resisting understanding, The Tribe does in the end achieve its goal, as it remains utterly, but disappointingly, meaningless.
The Tribe is released on 15th May 2015 in the UK