Ukrainian film “The Tribe” attempts its audacious storytelling experiment right from its very first scene. While there are sounds on its soundtrack, there is no spoken dialogue in the film as it observes the interactions between its main characters who are the students of a boarding school for the deaf, and it does not even provide us the subtitle for understanding their sign language. This is not a comfortable experience at all for many other reasons besides that, but it is also a simple but compelling work fueled by its tense, uncompromising look into the gloomy criminal world of its main characters, and you may come to admire more how skillfully the movie did its job under its plain, restrained attitude.
Its story is mostly told through Sergey (Hryhory Fesenko), a young deaf teenager who has just enrolled in his new boarding school, and we get the first glimpses into the school while watching him arriving at the boarding school alone. Its students and teachers and others are beginning their another year with a ceremony we only observe from the distance with the camera, and Sergey looks like a guest very late for the party at the end of this scene.
The school does not look that bad at first, but it soon reveals its hidden side as Sergey starting his first day. There is a criminal system operating inside the school, and he has no choice but to obey to its rules while being coerced by a group of older students in the school. Like any new young gang member, he goes through an initiation ritual after enduring some humiliation, and he soon gets actively involved in several criminal activities of his gang, which is turned out to be also associated with a couple of the faculty members in the school.
As firmly holding its objective view, the movie calmly shows us how things work in their closed world – and how they get money from the outside. They sometimes sell stuffed toys on train, and we see how ruthlessly they can be when some other deaf guy happens to come into their territory at one point. They also often slip out of their dormitory at night, and there is a quiet but chilling nocturnal sequence which gradually reveals what Sergey and other gang members are going to do to some unfortunate citizen.
And we also meet two deaf school girls who have worked as prostitutes for the school gang. With one gang member and the woodwork school teacher as their handlers, they are frequently taken to a local resting place for truckers, and we witness how their seedy business is operated. It is revealed later that these girls will be sent to Italy for an apparent reason, and, probably because of their desperate wish to get out of their world, the girls do not seem to think much about what kind of fate may wait for them there.
Filling the empty position after a very unlucky accident of his predecessor (that darkly funny moment is one of a few humorous moments in the film, by the way), Sergey becomes unwisely drawn to one of these girls. Yana (Yana Novikova) is officially a girl belonging to the leader of his gang, but Yana and Sergey begin their secret affair after one poignant scene in which they literally bare their feelings to each other. They become closer to each other as the time goes by, but then Yana is being ready for going to Italy, and Sergey is clearly not very pleased about this change – and there comes a big trouble for that.
While not giving any background information on Sergey or any other main characters in the film, the director/writer Myroslav Slaboshpytsky keeps us engaged in his story through his austere storytelling solely based what is shown and felt through mood and body language. Many scenes in the movie are presented through long, uninterrupted shot, and the cinematographer/editor Valentyn Vasyanovycy’s camera flawlessly alternates between fixed position and fluid movement as steadily accumulating tense beneath the screen, and the stark, realistic mood on the screen further emphasizes the bleak environment surrounding its characters with no visible hope.
Unless you are familiar with Ukrainian sign language, you will have no idea on what exactly the deaf characters say to each other during their many mute conversation scenes in the film, but we are slowly drawn to their silent drama as curious spectators thanks to Slaboshpytsky’s deft direction. We are not entirely sure about everything in the story, but the movie evokes that simplicity of silent movies while letting you infer what the characters feel or think from their facial expressions and body movements, and the unadorned performances by its deaf non-professional actors add considerable power and authenticity to the film. Some of them enter the areas which are even challenging for professional actors during several demanding scenes, and the movie is as unflinching as its actors in its direct, unpretentious handling of these difficult scenes.
“The Tribe” is the first feature film by Slaboshpytsky, and he received many praises when it was shown at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics’ Week section (it won three awards including the France 4 Visionary Award in the end). This is surely a cold, tough stuff to some of you, but my eyes were fixed onto the screen by its dark, unsettling drama until it finally reached to its devastating finale with sad fury and despair, and I was constantly intrigued by its fascinating approach to story and characters. They are silent, but, as you will see, they speak volumes through their silence – and their bodies.