A young man asks for directions and finds the place he is looking for, an institution for the deaf. But, it is more than just a school for the hearing impaired. It is also a center for syndicate of silent criminals dealing in prostitution, drugs and scamming those who can hear. These deaf denizens are, in fact, “The Tribe.”
The film begins with the disclaimer that “There are no subtitles, translation or voice narration“ and its characters “speak” entirely in sign language. This seemed daunting to this film buff – a virtually silent film that is spoken in a language of hand and body gestures unknown to me. But, a few minutes into the film, it had me and I fell into the rhythm of “The Tribe” as I figured out, or at least tried to, the story and its plot lines.
The many characters introduced as “The Tribe” may be nameless, but you get to know all of them and their motivations, criminal and otherwise. The title is a perfect and succinct description of this soundless society, a microcosmic world that survives and thrives among the hearing. I give it an A-.
Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) gets off a bus and is directed to his boarding school for the deaf's front door just in time to miss an elaborate assembly. After some hazing that involves getting tossed out of several rooms, Sergey settles in with King's (Oleksandr Osadchyi) group, bullying, mugging and beating on others. When he's turned to pimping, though, he falls for Anya (Yana Novikova), one of King's girls, upsetting the natural order of "The Tribe."
It's a shame that Ukraine didn't take the risk and nominate this one-of-a-kind film for their country's slot for Oscar's foreign language submission last year. Then again, there isn't any spoken language in "The Tribe," a film writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky cast with nonprofessional deaf actors. It's not like watching a foreign film with no subtitles nor is it really quite like watching a silent film. Instead, the whole body communication that encompasses sign language pulls us into the film like trying to listen to someone who's whispering. We engage more. Even when the actors are not signing, they somehow seem more expressive and we find ourselves doing things like 'sharing' interior monologues, projecting our own thoughts onto the character we are watching.
Initial goings are a bit mysterious. Why do students in assembly gift one female teacher with bushels of flowers while the principal and two male teachers get one bouquet apiece? During a class featuring a prominent map of Europe, Russia dominating on the right, we begin to think about things like how a teacher gets the attention of a daydreaming student or how the class must constantly focus on the teacher - taking notes here would mean missing something else. This class may be being used to note Ukraine's place in the world, as we see no further signs of education, the rest of the film's 132 minute running time taking place in dorm rooms, hallways and exterior locations, one fateful woodshop class excepted.
After being offered a cigarette behind the school, Sergey is sussed up by King and his crony, inspected for needle marks. The two girls, Anya and Svetka (Rosa Babiy), who reacted harshly when he was shoved into their room, are seen next, changing in the back of a van. We wonder where they are heading - a club perhaps? - until they get out, a line of parked long haul trucks stretching out into the horizon, their pimp knocking on windshields, negotiating. When he's run over, not having heard a truck approaching, Sergey gets the job, later using the opportunity to get intimate with Anya. But unbeknownst to him, King's gang has been working on getting the girls Italian Visas.
"The Tribe" is a pretty harsh film - those who found the abortion in Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" hard to take should be forewarned that there is one seen here which is arguably worse - yet it also has a kind of austere beauty. Cinematographer/editor Valentyn Vasyanovych long Steadicam takes artfully immerse us in the action. Slaboshpitsky has made the upperclassmen of a school for the deaf a microcosm of a society where there may be love and loyalties, but whose underlying driving force is black market capitalism and survival of the fittest.
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