Last year, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy stunned theater audiences into silence, an appropriate state given his nature of his debut feature The Tribe. He used non-professional deaf actors to show the tribal behavior within a Ukrainian high school. No subtitles, just sign and body language left to the audience to interpret, providing a uniquely engaging experience.
The film follows the arrival of Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) at a boarding school for the deaf. After an initial hazing he is drawn into a group of students, the “tribe” of the title, placed at the bottom of the pecking order, and gradually makes his way up the ranks through his abilities and the unfortunate death of another member. The group activities range from petty theft to mugging, a smuggling operation, and, in concert with a woodwork teacher, an organized student prostitution ring. Sergey begins a relationship with Anna (Yana Novikova), one of these female students, when he becomes her pimp. However, his feelings for her cause complications when it becomes apparent their teacher is setting up a mail order bride operation and has plans to send her to Italy. This relationship goes against tribe rules, and the group begins to assert its own code against one of its own.
Slaboshpytskiy has crafted a film with a communist feel, a cold portrayal of some horrific scenes that only seems to enhance their impact. The cast is made up of young, deaf actors with no subtitles or dialogue, a high concept idea that is executed with precision. The loss of hearing is reflected in the camera work, with sight being a heightened sense; long takes and tracking shots are used, where the camera lingers on scenes long after you want to look away. This is a grim and harrowing look into a bleak existence, the approach heightening the impact of every slap and punch.
The majority of the audience will have little comprehension of sign language, but the narrative is not overly complex. One scene may confound, but the following one offers clarity. It is immersive viewing as you try to interpret the scene, the film building slowly to a traumatic conclusion, punctuated by visceral scenes of sex and violence. Personally, I felt some some scenes played a little long, but in conversation with friends some took a while longer to interpret what was unfolding. Extra time seems to be allowed to ensure the audience is on the same page, but some may be frustrated at times in the pacing.
THE PACKAGEWhile brutal in its narrative, The Tribe is a beautiful film, albeit in a bleak way. The transfer is an exceptional one, with deep blacks and good detail, both important to allow interpretation of the scenes.
The disc comes with a reversible art sleeve and a 22 page booklet including some script excerpts and a interview with the director. Special features include a commentary with the director and BMD critic Devin Faraci, Slaboshpytskiy’s short film Deafness, and an interview with actress Yana Novikova. Wrapping things up are trailers and a DRM-free digital copy. It’s a decent set of extras, but given the unique approach of the film some more extensive “behind the scenes” features would have been welcome.
THE BOTTOM LINEWatching The Tribe is a powerful experience, one perhaps reminiscent of the impact films first had back in the silent era. This audacious and harrowing piece of cinema that will linger long in the memory. Meticulously constructed and brutally affecting filmmaking.
The Tribe is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.