Never give up on the movies. Never stop thinking you'll continue to find oddball films and come away thinking “Well, I've never seen something like that before!” I'm not saying The Tribe is a masterpiece – or even all that great – but it is absolutely one of a kind and anyone who cares about exploring the outer limits of cinema needs to seek this picture out.
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's The Tribe, a Ukrainian production, opens with a title card explaining that it is all in sign language. “There are no subtitles. There is no translation.” The first shot, like almost all in the deliberately paced film, is a wide shot - of a teen at a bus station looking for directions. We can't hear him, but he seems to be making himself understood. He arrives at a school for the deaf – grimy and blocky, likely a holdover from Communism. After an assembly (where two tall, thin girls are spotlighted, despite no cuts or close-ups) our anchor to the story heads to his first class.
Even though we can't know the specifics of what is being communicated, we instantly recognize these kids. We've seen movies before and the codes are the same. There's the class clown, the class reject and the bad boys. Our guy soon falls in with the bad boys and that's when things get weird.
There's a local bullying extortion ring, and I guess that's to be expected. Not too many movies from this part of the world make it my way, but a recent, terrific Kazakh film called Harmony Lessons is also about an inter-school lunch money shakedown mafia ring, but The Tribe goes far darker. The gang sell knick-knacks on trains, and aren't above occasional theft. But the real money is in prostitution.
The two tall girls, one blonde, the other brunette, are being pimped out at truck stops by an older deaf guy. (Much, much later in the film we learn his official connection to the school – and it's a bit of a perfect joke.) The gals don't seem to be upset about their exploitation. They get gifts, like cheap, tacky souvenir T-shirts when another older guy comes back from a trip to Rome. We're conditioned to think of these women as victims, but since we only somewhat understand what they're saying, it's harder to know how they feel – harder to know what's a face for others, since we rarely see anyone by themselves.
After an accident at a truck stop (turns out deaf people can't hear the beeping of a backing-up rig too well) our protagonist ends up being the main pimp. Naturally this leads to a relationship with one of the women, the blonde, and in time, she ends up in a family way.
Her trip to an abortionist (a repulsive, dirty affair that is suitable propaganda to keep the practice safe and legal forever and ever amen) is filmed in a lengthy wide shot, as are the sex acts that preceded it. The associated image of the two lovers entwined are a fine rebuke to the gag about Cinemascope only being good for “snakes and funerals.” Slaboshpytskiy's decision to keep everything at a remove may be seen as overkill for a movie that is already intentionally distancing, but it enhances the notion that everything you are seeing is in some weird, far away universe.
So much so that my mind started playing tricks. One lengthy scene – something of a Fight Club moment – has a scuffle in the foreground and a gaggle of kids watching on the side of some industrial hill. The assembled crowd is all furiously communicating with one another, and the sequence goes on for so long that it extends beyond being an ethnographic film. It becomes a peek at something unusual in nature. I don't want to sound flippant, but the image is so unpredictable that to my untrained eye it felt like watching a cordoned off area in a zoo. I know this may read as cruel, but that isn't my intention. From a purely visual point of view, it is a stretched-out glimpse at humans behaving in a way I've never really seen before.
Even though our characters deal with people from the “outside” world, the movie slyly ensures we never hear them speak. We either view through windows into exteriors, or the truckers make their deals with mere nods. There is nothing in the text to prove that The Tribe doesn't exist in some science fiction setting where EVERYONE is deaf. It could be that this isn't a deaf school – it's just a school.
Either way, it's an ugly, unkempt school, as are the surrounding environs. It's a dusty, poorly furnished place. Take your shoes off for one moment and your feet turn black. The van they use to drive out the girls in their bland pantyhose is covered in a layer of filth. I swear to you that I could smell this movie. And after enough time I began to wonder . . .I'm not hearing, but my sense of smell is increased. Could it be? Could removing one sense enhances another – even in a movie? With a film with this kind of slow burn, you've got time to spin the windmills of your mind.
Slow burn is, of course, a touchy phrase. Don't go in expecting action. But when it does come it is intense and cleverly specific to this scenario. I witnessed no walkouts during this explicit movie, and the 8:30 am screening at Cannes' International Critics' Week sidebar had its share of senior citizens. It could be that the Europeans are wired differently, but I think it is because nothing in here is intended as mere shock value. The movie does shock, but it is an earned shock, and that is a key difference.