A young boy rides his bicycle over fallen leaves on a brisk and bleak autumn day. When he passes by a playground he only stops to promptly say something in sign language before continuing pedaling in the same direction as the other children excitedly follow him. The group eventually reach the ruins of a once-great structure, now reduced to makeshift stands for other deaf children whom frantically sign to one another in anticipation as the older boys huddle in front of the on looking crowd.
One of the older boys stand out from the rest, his wool sweater sticks out amongst his peers’ Adidas tracksuits yet it’s black all the same. Soon enough the 3 tracksuits are surrounding the wool sweater. One strikes but the boy in the sweater counters the blow before preparing for the next assault. There’s an uncanny familiarity to the way he handles himself. The way he stands amongst the onslaught suggests he’s fought before, yet the homely way in which he dresses tells a different story.
Soon enough the tracksuits exploit their numbers, and the sweater has fallen onto the leaves while the trio deliver swift kicks to his stomach and back. The children have remained silent, motionless, the entire time. The wool sweater finally decides to make his move. He grabs the largest boy, the leader the likely presumes, and severely strains his neck. The other tracksuits back off. One then embraces the wool sweater. The tribe walks off. The children soon follow. The boy on the bicycle is the last to leave the ruins.
That scene from ‘The Tribe’ by Ukrainian Writer/Director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky was taken in one of the film’s mere 35 shots and entirely mute aside from the crunching of leaves, howling wind, and thumbing of punches and kicks. It perfectly illustrates the hauntingly human crime drama, which sees a deaf Ukrainian teenager become involved in illegal activities such as aggravated assault, drug dealing, and prostitution in order to be one with his peers.
What makes ‘The Tribe’ special is that the entire film is in sign language, with neither subtitles nor voiceovers to translate the dialogue. Instead, Slaboshpitsky employs the ‘show don’t tell’ mentality on a truly innovative plane. As a result, ‘The Tribe’ isolates the audience like nothing else – it throws you into this world where you can’t understand what anyone is saying and where you have no choice but to sit and tediously scrutinize each scene. You, like the boy in the wool sweater (played by Grigoriy Fesenko), are alone. That is until he and you are accepted into the tribe. And in the moments when Fesenko is walking and working alongside his peers, for as illegal as the crimes they’re committing the aforementioned loneliness the viewer feels, and relates, to the boy forces you to want to accept these terrible (and graphic) acts if it means you and Fesenko don’t have to be alone.
Nearly halfway through the film, the story shifts focus to the boy’s love interest – a girl (played by Yana Novikova) who works as a prostitute through the tribe. In a handful of extended sex scenes, we see the two genuinely connect. For her it’s clearly nothing special but it holds potential for more; for him it’s something he’s willing to throw everything away for. Thus, like no other film, ‘The Tribe’ manages to translate and inflict loneliness upon the audience – crafting a truly emotional and unique experience.
However, it is extremely difficult to recommend this film to anyone who isn’t a cinephile. That isn’t meant demean casual viewers but ‘The Tribe’ is an unparalleled exercise in patience. More than one scene drags on for far too long, boasting a severe lack of significance to justify its length – coincidently making the film seem a lot longer than its already generous 130 minutes. Granted I did set through the film’s entirety, and found the ending to be darkly satisfying thematically, ‘The Tribe’ is much more concerned with engaging the viewer through its gritty authenticity, and thereby theme, than narrative. It’s an agenda that will surely off-put some from the start and test the endurance of its viewers whom, I guarantee regardless of focus, will be disengaged because of a few needlessly long scenes.
Critiquing the performances is another daunting task. For starters, almost every actor did an astounding job to conveying emotion solely through body language not to mention the lengthy 10-15 minute takes. Yet, I felt Novikova had the more standout performance – bringing a more painfully physical showing than her counterpart. To that note, Fesenko, in my opinion, missed a big opportunity with such a juicy role – for his character’s complexity outshone what he actually brought to the character, not explicitly showing the withering effects of this life. And by the time we reach the bloody climax, Fesenko maintains the same stone face we first saw him wear. Of course, because the absence of dialogue and interpretive nature of the narrative it really is anyone’s guess as to how well an actor portrayed a character if an entire aspect the story and their personality is left up to multiple opinions.
‘The Tribe,’ can’t be reviewed by traditional means. Sure, I could say it’s a coming of age tale on steroids, but that would be a disservice to the piece of art this film is. It boldly transmits emotion like nothing I’ve ever seen – honestly making the viewer feel as though they’re a minority in this strange cruel world. And because dialogue, music, camera shots are nowhere to be found, our only salvation is the boy in the wool sweater’s relationships. Without those, without the tribe, we are lost. When you view this film you’re not viewing a movie, you’re experiencing life. And for as cliché as it sounds it’s true. The world isn’t fair to anyone, so why should it be to us?
‘The Tribe’ receives a 8.5/10.