Rarely does a debut feature reach the ambitious heights of Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe. With its bleak aesthetic and harrowing themes of abuse, sexual exploitation, violence and manipulation, this Ukrainian horror drama portrays the cruel happenings in a boarding school for deaf students. Despite the school setting, there are only two classroom scenes. The majority of the story takes place in bathrooms, in dormitories and in the shadows. When a new student arrives at the school he is quickly recruited by the tribe – an incestuous group of teenagers whose operations are deep-seated in greed, rebellion and depravity. We join their newest soldier as he attempts to fit in, impress and avoid excommunication. We never learn the names of anyone because there is no audible dialogue, no subtitles and no translation for a hearing audience. The film is conducted entirely in sign language – simultaneously presenting its audience with new obstacles and entrances into how we experience cinema. Slaboshpitsky himself is not deaf and required a signer on set throughout production to ensure that the script was being translated accurately by an entirely deaf cast. The beauty of The Tribe is that is has absolutely nothing to do with being deaf. One could argue that the teenagers have become vicious and poisonous due to their isolation from the outside world but realistically this is a film that could take place in any type of school. This is not a film about deaf people – it’s a film about captivity and ritual.
The Tribe is also about youth and highlights this by creating an almost entirely adult-less world. The adults we encounter are only ever being used by the students as customers or opportunities; they have no voices here. Slaboshpitsky conjures up a world where the leaders are the young, reckless and dangerous in their angst and frustration. However spontaneous and rebellious each character may seem – there are rules here. The students must remain loyal within the ranks of the tribe and be quick to unite against a threat or betrayer. Like any type of dictatorship – the members operate through fear although this is only subtly explored. The characters are comrades and not friends. When two students become intimate and they explore their emotional feelings, (the relationship displayed on the film’s already iconic poster), they begin to slide towards a brutal downfall. Slaboshpitsky’s camera either tiptoes behind the characters, following them down winding corridors or up cold concrete stairs, or stands still, far away and documenting their movements. The Shining meets Planet Earth in this captivating study of man’s most deprived and destructive capabilities and the most extreme consequences of the vulnerability of youth. The Tribe is aesthetically comparable to the mesmerising, but miserable, work of Michael Haneke. Haneke, known for putting his audiences through similarly gruelling and insufferable experiences, shares the under-saturated aesthetic captured by first time cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych in The Tribe. Peeling, icy, blue walls and concrete floors provide the film’s cold frame. The school itself is a concrete prison in which the weak are identified and ridiculed. We don’t spend much time with anyone outside of the tribe so it is their vision of this world that we see.
I watched The Tribe early in the morning at a BFI screening day. To put yourself through the misery and anguish of this film before noon leaves you feeling both elated and devastated. The Tribe is relentless, merciless and defiant. Watching every character sign does two very refreshing things for a hearing viewer. It isolates you from the complexities of the conversations, allowing you to experience the world as deaf people do – but it simultaneously draws you further into the film. You’re compelled and rejected by the film’s use of communication; put in the position of a minority which only makes you more desperate to be a part of it all. The communication creates the clique. The tribe don’t seem to comprehend the dangers of the rest of the world thanks to their intimate surroundings and perceptions of a land without sound. We are used to viewing the deaf community as one that wants to be included but here we meet young individuals who only take what they need from society – happily functioning within their own worlds and walls. The Tribe climbs towards a harrowing but enthralling conclusion. It is a masterful thing to create tension and suspense through characters we neither like nor root for. The film’s most difficult scene to watch is also the most sentimental when we finally witness a member of the tribe in a vulnerable state; a child out of her depth. Using deaf characters but making this characteristic somewhat irrelevant to the plot is Slaboshpitsky’s greatest achievement. The Tribe is an unapologetic masterpiece that questions the very way that we ingest film and experience art through the senses.
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