The Tribe, the first full-length feature from Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, is presented in Ukrainian sign language, minus any subtitles or spoken dialogue, and contains instances of horrific violence (and quite graphic fornication) during gruellingly long takes that invoke many questions as to how certain scenes were even achieved without any genuine physical harm to the young men and women involved. The film is nothing if not an audacious directorial debut; a grand, horrifying cinematic mission statement that might particularly appeal to the likes of Michael Haneke and, especially, Gaspar Noé. The trouble is that shock value only gets you so far, and what’s in the breaks between the blows (both confrontational blows and sexual ones) doesn’t necessarily suggest there’s much beyond blunt shock value here.
The film opens on young man Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) asking for sign language directions and receiving help from some adults; this is basically the only kind act to take place in The Tribe. We then follow Sergey to his new institution, a boarding school for the deaf-mute. Seemingly mere minutes after arriving, he is inducted into the social and criminal hierarchy of the students, swept up in intimidation, misanthropy and hazing. He becomes part of a sophisticated mob-like operation that involves strangers being beaten and robbed, female students being pimped out to truckers, and enforcers collecting debts for the resident kingpin of the school. Sergey worms his way in well, such as in proving himself in a violent school yard brawl, but when he takes a romantic interest in one of the pimped girls, Anna (Yana Novikova), bloody consequences ensue for all involved parties.
Slaboshpitsky builds his film on a string of highly choreographed long takes and diorama-like tableaux, making it an undeniably immersive experience thanks to the accompanying lack of audible language. It’s immersive for a while, anyway. Not even halfway into this 132-minute film, Slaboshpitsky’s repetitive methods become all too clear and tiresome. He makes you observe either an extensive process or some drawn-out action, like lingering on Sergey and Anna having graphic sex, only to break the silence with the sound of a smash or a smack or a scream. Every ten-minute stretch ends with another blunt, increasingly tedious interruption of abuse to shake audiences up. Instead of engaging with a silent world, putting oneself in the shoes of the deaf-mute players, the viewer is instead distanced and at all times anticipating its disruption.
There is an undeniable visceral quality to proceedings thanks to the high concept aesthetic conceit mixed with the graphic content (which includes a backstreet abortion rendered in excruciating real time), but scrutinising the technique reveals little interest in the people being abused. Slaboshpitsky’s camera gawks at symbols there to simply suffer, rather than commenting on actual characters in any meaningful way or examining anything beyond mere miserablist views of the world. What could have been a powerful window into a marginalised life most could never understand is instead yet another smug slice of try-hard wallowing in the muck of degradation and hollow exploitation.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently the managing film editor at Sound On Sight, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.