The Tribe (TIFF 2014 Review)

The Tribe (2014)

Dir: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky

It’s been said that there’s only a finite numbers of stories and that everything made now is just a variation on what’s come before. That may well be true, but the magic is in the telling. Narratives boundaries can still be bent or broken and new experiences can be had. Exhibit A: the Ukrainian film The Tribe. Featuring mostly deaf actors playing deaf mute characters, The Tribe is told entirely through action – no dialogue, subtitles, voiceovers, or spoken language of any type ever appear. In case there was any doubt, a disclaimer states this before the movie even begins. The audience is then thrown into a world is both recognizable and deeply unfamiliar.

Grigory Fesenko portrays the lead character, a teen who is sent to a boarding school in rural Ukraine. The film opens with him trying to gain directions from strangers at a bus stop. He gesticulates wildly and expresses himself without speech. He’s bound for a boarding school where everyone – teachers, students, drivers – is like him, deaf and mute. He falls in with the boys who seem to run the show at his new school, as they smoke cigarettes, run scams, fight amongst themselves, and pimp out their female peers. It’s fascinating to be brought into this totally foreign place with no recognizable signposts or hand-holding, and try to keep up as the layers are peeled back and we’re shown more and more.

Immediately there’s a distance creating between the subjects and the audience by the use of abnormally long takes and shots from a medium or wide distance. There’s very few close-ups in The Tribe, with director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky instead favouring wide, carefully composed shots that take in many characters and scroll side to side, like a classic video game. This becomes apparent during an extended fight sequence that is almost like Oldboy-like in its long, single take. It also brings to mind the self-conscious compositions of Wes Anderson, although here Slaboshpitsky has created a deeply dark and ugly world – all institutionalized concrete, dirty snow, and cluttered, run-down classrooms.

Of course, the lack of any spoken language enhances and distorts this distance, as we come to rely on the actions and reactions, along with context and place, that we see in order to have a story conveyed. And even though there is diagetic sound, the characters themselves are deaf. A sequence in a crowded truck stop that features a hapless student acting as pimp ends unfortunately when he fails to hear a truck backing up behind him. What the actors are doing here, all broad expressions and big gestures, is modulated by the dispassionate way the movie is shot to create a delicate balance that actually ends up working in its favour. The Tribe is essentially a contemporary silent film, which tells a familiar new-kid-in-school story in way that is totally novel in this day and age, yet draws upon purely visual storytelling of the past.

At over two hours, the movie does feel long at times but there’s an unpredictability to it that keeps you curious to see where it goes next. Long takes establish a rhythm that lulls you in, and scenes of shocking inhumanity and violence keep you on your toes and off guard. This is not a film for everyone, which is driven home in the final 40 minutes when the subject matter gets especially lurid and prurient. An extended take of the termination of a pregnancy, shot essentially in real-time, had me expecting walkouts for sure at my screening but they never happened. Credit strong stomachs and a fortitude to follow this film into the dark crevasses it explores for that. Or perhaps just Canadian politeness. And just when you think it can’t get any more strange, The Tribe goes even further and commits to a shotgun blast of nihilism and passes it off as an ending.

Gutsy, beguiling, and totally idiosyncratic, The Tribe is at times a movie easier to admire than outright enjoy. However, the careful framing, committed performances from many first time actors, and bizarre subject matter push this one into the winning column. It’s unique and frustrating, bringing you close then alienating as well, an experience that actually warrants the descriptor unlike anything you’ve seen before.  If you’re a jaded movie watcher seeking out something new or simply curious as to how the form can still be shaped and used in exciting ways, watch The Tribe.

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