DIR/WRI/PRO: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky • DOP/ED: Valentyn Vasyanovych • DES: Vlad Odudenko • CAST: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy
The Tribe, a film by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, tells the story of a teenage boy who joins a specialised boarding school for deaf youths and gets involved with some rather unsavoury characters. The film, entirely in Ukrainian sign language, is Slaboshpitsky’s first feature film, which he has written and produced himself, and made the festival circuit last year winning several prizes at Cannes, and took to Locarno, TIFF, and more recently at Palm Springs, garnering enough attention to go on theatrical release in 2015.
There are mixed feelings when it comes to this one and it’s not hard to see why. It can be gamble even when a film with dialogue banks entirely on the ability of a non-professional cast to fully express its meaning. Here, I think, the bad outweighed the good. It’s not the stereotypical representation of the eastern European villain (which is repeated in various novelty archetypes) that confuses, or the difficulty that brings in connecting to characters due to their lack of dimension. It’s not in the places where the film sacrifices credibility for sensationalism, or is it the way you have to continually prevent yourself from categorizing it because of these moments. In terms of innately expressive cinema this had great potential.
I think the trouble with The Tribe is that it leans far too heavily on the gimmick (for the want of a better word) and unfortunately, this reliance means a lot of the action seems disingenuous and overdramatised. For instance, graphic violence features heavily in the film and in a lot of cases is without ground and badly choreographed – when the film’s lead Sergey is being inducted in one of the early fight scenes, he literally kung-fu’s a group of five people, a fight which ends abruptly when the hardened gang leader and challenger gets bitten. In the same vein, some of the sex scenes look like an attempt by the actors to cover each-others private parts. The gang and the woodwork teacher (whose activities include pimping two prostitutes and robbing weaker students) suffer the death of one of their chief members who gets killed on the job, only for him to be erased from the films memory. I’ve never been to the Ukraine, but I’d like to think a teacher would look for him, or his disappearance at least be acknowledged. These scenes are incredulous and over-compensatory – for “in the end, Sergey, the softie turned rapist thief, murders each of the gang members as they sleep in their dorm by smashing their heads in with bedroom lockers. My interpretation is that this is in retaliation for their attempt to traffic the girls, one of whom he loves. Despite one scene where he pays her for sex, this love is totally unsubstantiated. He steals a pile of cash to pay her again, and when she refuses he forces himself on her. Gritty or what.
The boarding school is void of rules and adults, except for the implicit woodwork teacher and his intermittent sidekick, and quite ideal for fantasy-like conditions. There is no real conflict in this film – there are too many dramatic events and not enough circumstance. It’s just one violent event searching blindly after another, and for some kind of realism.
Decidedly, the films saving grace is cinematographer and editor, Valentyn Vasyanovych, without whom it probably wouldn’t have gotten far. The mise-en-scene lends itself to some remarkable tracking shots, opening with a bright-angled shot that follows Sergey up several flights of stairs to his new home, closed by a sudden swoop downhill behind him on his final murderous mission to the dorm. To be fair, aesthetically the film is nothing short of perfect – Slaboshpitsky, it might seem, has a good friend in Vasyanovych.
The Tribe is released 15th May 2015