It's tempting call the concept behind writer-director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's The Tribe (Ukrainian: Plemya) a gimmick, but to do so would undersell the feature’s merits as a bold formal and dramatic achievement. The film tells the story of Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), the new kid at a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf children and teenagers. Nearly all of the film's characters use Ukrainian Sign Language to communicate, and the few that do not are conveniently muted by barriers or ambient noise. What's more, the film has no subtitles for the benefit of those not conversant in USL, requiring most viewers to puzzle out the non-verbal dialog through close observation of facial expressions, body language, and the context of each scene within the broader narrative. To experience The Tribe is, in essence, to be subjected to 130 minutes of language immersion.
Notwithstanding its characters and setting, The Tribe is emphatically not striving to be an authentic or revealing portrait of Deaf culture. Sergey's tale is an extraordinary one, and (one hopes) not representative of other adolescents' experiences, deaf or hearing, Ukrainian or otherwise. The film follows Sergey's initiation into an inner circle of older teen boys who stride through the school's halls unfettered by its rules. At night, this clique runs a multifaceted and ruthless criminal operation with the aid of a few staff and faculty. Their underworld enterprises include robbery, drug dealing, and, most significantly for the film's events, the prostitution of a pair of female students. The Tribe thus reveals itself as a rather ugly teen crime picture, as opposed to a mere boarding school soap opera. In fact, the deafness of the characters proves almost incidental to the film's plot. There are only two moments where a character's inability to hear has serious implications, and one of those moments occurs in the film’s final scene.
Ultimately, Slaboshpitsky's choice to present Sergey’s story in sign language has two consequences. First, it illustrates that deaf people are just as capable of greed, lust, violence, and outright foolishness as hearing individuals. It's a banal observation, perhaps, but one that is rarely encountered in a mainstream cinematic landscape that tends to either disregard minority characters or treat them as unwilling emissaries for their entire group. The Tribe's characters are simply people who happen to be deaf, and like all people they can be cruel creatures under the right circumstances.
More significantly, the absence of both spoken dialog and subtitles creates a kind of self-imposed formal challenge for the filmmakers. The characters are blunt, broad individuals presented mostly without backstory, and the film eschews flashbacks, cross-cutting, and convoluted plotting. The focus is on conveying the present moment with as little ambiguity as possible. Slaboshpitsky's style aligns him fairly decisively with the “slow cinema” of contemporary eastern Europe: liberal use ultra-long shots; extended stretches of silence; an absence of non-diegetic music; and a mise-en-scène that can best be described as chilly yet awkwardly intimate. Reconciling this sort of removed, realist aesthetic with the need for narrative clarity is a tricky task, and it's a credit to Slaboshpitsky's skills as both a screenwriter and director that he pulls it off with such supple ease.
By foisting this challenge upon himself, Slaboshpitsky is similarly challenging the viewer to attend closely to each aspect of the film. (Not that one shouldn’t be attending closely to every film, which is one of The Tribe’s many worthy takeaways.) Slaboshpitsky’s feature is, in effect, a lesson in how to watch movies. The importance of composition and editing in cinematic storytelling come into sharp relief as the viewer attempts to riddle out exactly what is occurring within each scene, and how those scenes relate to one another. The film’s sound design is also crucial, for while The Tribe has no spoken dialog, it is far from silent. It is a film of rumbles, gasps, thuds, giggles, and clatters, a film where the emphatic slap of a signing person’s hands can be as potent as any screeching tire or bellowing monster.
What’s more, the film’s conceit and style provide fascinating opportunities for the performers. By necessity, The Tribe is composed almost entirely of medium and long shots, as close-ups would conceal the actors’ signing and body language. Yet The Tribe is still a film, and a highly naturalistic one at that, where the “big” performance style of the live theater would be a poor fit. The actors must therefore balance the clear expression of meaning with the realist constraints of the production, and they generally do so to fantastic effect. (The one glaring exception is a schoolyard fight where the choreography, such as it is, comes off as laughably phony.) In what will inevitably be one of the film’s most notorious sequences, a sexual transaction between two students unfolds with aloof explicitness, captured in a long single take from a clinical distance. Watching the actress in this scene convey her character’s gradual slippage from bored annoyance to anguished need as she receives the boy’s urgent thrusts, all without saying a word, is a deeply uncomfortable and yet extraordinary experience.
The brilliance of The Tribe is that the extra effort it demands of the audience does not turn the experience of watching the film into an ordeal, like some plate of vegetables to be choked down for one’s own good. It is, in fact, a quite sordid and absorbing tale, full of criminal misbehavior, cold-blooded opportunism, and the ruthless enforcement of tribal boundaries and taboos (as the title suggests). Slaboshpitsky utilizes the film’s extended shots and yawning silences to establish an atmosphere of persistent dread, in which terrible violence seems to be roiling beneath a brittle layer of mundane monotony. Indeed, The Tribe is especially dismal, as every character seems more venal than the next, Sergey included. He is the protagonist strictly because the film generally follows his viewpoint, and not because he is in any way a conflicted antihero. In truth, Sergey is revealed to be an acutely stupid and dangerous creep, a hot-head who seems capable of almost any depravity given the right motivation. The fact that one cannot look away as he shuffles his way down into damnation is a testament to the extent of Slaboshpitsky’s talents, as well as the dark, elemental allure of a tale where evil turns on evil.