In his first feature The Tribe Ukrainian filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy tells the dark story of teenager Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), who enters a boarding school and gets caught in the criminal web of the school’s gang. He seems to be an ordinary teenager struggling to find his place and the acceptance of others. But what makes this film so exceptional is that Sergey and his classmates are not ordinary – they are deaf-mute and communicate in sign language. Slaboshpytskiy’s decision to show the film without subtitles or voice-over makes for a truly unique experience.
Even though the course of action is easy to follow, deciphering the exact happenings is pure guessing. As Sergey moves up in the gang’s hierarchy he immerses in violence. He plays a crucial role in procuring the gang’s girls, but his interest in Anna (Yana Novikova) disturbs the plan of trafficking them to Italy. Their relationship takes on surprising dimensions – especially for her. For the first time she experiences selfless physical pleasure. Belarusian first-time screen actress Novikova delivers by far the most impressive performance of the film. Her character has to endure humiliation and excruciating pain in shockingly graphic scenes, but she convinces with great determination. One moment she embodies a confident woman with hope for a better life, in the next a fragile soul lost in naivety.
The majority of the scenes are unconventionally long.There are very few cuts, which requires the audience’s participation, but also triggers observation. The long takes allow the story and characters to unfold very naturally and the viewer to get used to the unusual cinematic experience. It is almost as if the camera rolls until even the last one got the meaning of a sequence. But it feels in no way slow for slowness’ sake – every image is laid out in exact detail. The movements of the actors, their bodies and gestures, are neatly choreographed. Their interactions are characterised by awareness for themselves and others, their body language feels exaggerated almost like in a musical. When the boys move across the playground like the Sharks of West Side Story you would almost expect them to break into song. It is a pleasure to see a crew of deaf-mute actors directed with such precision.
In its visual style The Tribe is the perfect incarnation of “the moving image”. Slaboshpytskiy and his DOP Vasyanovych frame every shot like a painting. Gracefully the characters flow in and out of sight, the action happens in various layers of the image. The static camera in the film’s most memorable scenes creates distance and allows the the viewer to take a step back and observe what is happening. There are no close-ups to facilitate empathy, the gaze remains always on the bigger picture. Without being voyeuristic, the camera’s detached perspective discloses a fatalistic idea: nothing can be done about the tragedy.
Adults, at least those who could serve as responsible role models, are completely absent. Everyone seems to be involved in the crimes committed. Their surroundings are made up of desolated houses covered in graffiti and the sparsely equipped barracks they call their school. Playing with gritty social realism Slaboshpytskiy presents a pessimistic view not only upon the Ukrainian society – for which our awareness surely increased in the previous months – but also of the universal state of forlornness this youth is in. With unusual and to the bone minimalistic means he creates a painting rather than a film, a piece of art that draws you in completely.
This review initially appeared in Nisimazine Cannes 2014 #4 here.