By Tom Platt. A movie theater is a place where many people go to quiet their minds for a few hours of over-air conditioned storytelling. Since the silent films of old, audiences have been told stories in a (more often than not) direct manner that outlines the plot, whether it be through expository dialogue, narration, or text displayed on screen. Lulled into a sense of comfort we trust the images on screen as they guide us into a world that cohesively mirrors our wildest imaginations.
Whereas most films lovingly guide you by the hand, The Tribe opens the gate to our kennels, allowing us to explore the world outside as if for the first time. The Tribe contains no spoken dialogue and no subtitles. It’s drama is played out entirely in Ukrainian sign language, featuring a cast of non-actors, playing unnamed characters. Nothing is handed to you, but everything is offered.
Taking place at a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf, The Tribe follows an unnamed teenage boy (Grigoriy Fesenko) as he quickly discovers that the only way to survive in this new school is to carve out a place for himself among the brutes and pimps that make up the student body.
Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy offers a window to a world few of us have bothered to acknowledge, and through its honesty, shakes us and alienates us as people. Noticing the inherence that comes with the visual physicality of sign language, Slaboshpytskiy places it in front of the camera in a way that so perfectly compliments the art of visual storytelling that suddenly it seems so obvious. Creating an inoffensive parallel between the ham acting found in classic silent films and the necessary gesticulation that accompanies sign language, The Tribe is able to present scenes that feel less like acting and more like memories, almost to the point where we stop looking for subtitles because we already know all the words.
We follow Grigoriy Fesenko’s character through the film as he finds acceptance, work, and love. But like many classic tragedies have warned us before, loving a girl (Yana Novikova) who spends her nights turning tricks for lonely truck drivers is a bitter and painful road to navigate. While the film’s romantic subplot isn’t exactly groundbreaking, the film’s true innovation is found in its ideas of love. We are reminded that love carries with it a greater wrath than revenge or honor, creating a sense of need that leads to actions that can be justifiably vicious yet completely understood.
Our ears allow us a sense of place and put us at ease in a way that juxtaposes the unnerving spatial awareness the camera provides. Shot, what seems to be, entirely on steadicam, The Tribe consists of around 34 shots. One shot per scene forces the audience to trust the camera as their eyes. It does not cut away, it does not allow for squeamishness in the face of hard truths, and it is very much a vessel at play in the world. At many times there comes a sense that the camera must hurry out of the action that is happening around us, as if we are physically in the room observing but unable to help, because we are unable to communicate.
The Tribe has reinvigorated the silent film, giving it purpose in an otherwise spoonfed market. Slaboshpytskiy allows us to feel an intense alienation that many deaf people must feel as they grow up in a predominantly hearing world. Our hands are not held, but the familiar plot gives us a light to follow as we as the audience are asked to sit silently with an awareness of our own vulnerability. The Tribe creates a coming of age story not simply for the characters on screen, but for the audience, forcing our eyes open to a world we have overlooked and alienated most of our lives.
After a successful run through the festival circuit over a year ago, The Tribe is finally making an American tour to arthouse cinemas all across the country (seriously all over, Putnam, NH is on the list). Showtimes are added constantly, and can be found at the DrafthouseFilms.com/Film/The-Tribe.