A group of comedy writers, pushing for a “Tropic Thunder”-style gag about the type of pretentious, foreign, arthouse guff that wins festival awards, might very well land on the logline “unsubtitled Ukrainian sign-language drama” and we’d grimace and laugh accordingly. But then we watched unsubtitled Ukrainian sign-language drama “The Tribe” and were too busy gaping in astonishment to so much as crack a smile: this deeply compelling debut feature from director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy utterly defies mockery with the seriousness of its subject matter and the intelligence of its execution. And it duly won awards, three in fact: the Cannes Critics’ Week Grand Prize, the Visionary Award and a Distribution Support Endowment Prize, this last especially good news, we have to think, because despite the difficulty of its themes and the unfriendliness of its comedy-gold logline, this is a film that deserves the biggest arthouse audience possible.
Without a single recognizable word spoken throughout its entire running time, “The Tribe” takes place in the nightmarish demi-monde of a school for the deaf in the Ukraine, in which the students, aided by corrupt or neglectful or simply absent adult authority figures, have basically formed a society of their own, with its own rules and hierarchies, its own jealousies and currencies. Into this school a new boy arrives, and it’s largely his story we follow as he first elicits our sympathy as the object of bullying and exclusion, then gradually reveals himself to be a far more malevolent creature than we had first imagined. And in the first, and most astonishing of its formalist strokes of brilliance, the sign language which these young people use to communicate is not translated into subtitles or voiceover, so we’re thrown in at the deep end of trying to understand their “speech” with no crutch to help us stay afloat. It speaks to the cleverness of the scenarios and the eloquence of the shotmaking, performances (from the all-deaf cast) and mise en scene, that we manage to do so so quickly, learning how to mine body language and facial expressions and gestures for every drop of meaning.
But we’re by no means being put in the shoes of a deaf person: that is not Slaboshpytskiy’s aim at all. The film is far from silent, in fact complementing its excellent long-take, smooth, steadicam photography, it has a very carefully arranged sound design in which ambient noise becomes crisp and clear--footsteps, car engines, the susurration of clothing, the muffled impacts of fists on chests. This has the dual effect of heightening our awareness of the absence of the spoken word and putting us at a remove from the students who are, in fact, conversing amongst themselves but in a language we don’t speak and can’t hear. For a hearing person, this is uncannily eerie, to suddenly be on the back foot, thrust into an enclosed environment where the unquestioned norm of understanding and communication being easier because one can hear, is overturned.
But it gets at a much deeper truth than simply that we tend to take our hearing privilege for granted. In fact we’d suggest that the film is not actually about deafness in any meaningful way at all, instead it very cleverly uses this spoken-language-free set up to explore the way in which we use language, and what it can conceal. As the mini-society depicted becomes ever more “Lord of the Flies” in its animal brutality (the film features a lot of graphic violence, some rather distractingly awkward sex, and an agonizing abortion scene) it becomes uncomfortably apparent that this behavior is so shocking to us partly because it isn’t mediated through language. The actions and events are naked to our eyes, not couched in reasons and justifications, not softened by explanations, by words. And so then we're questioning whether language itself is dishonest: is it nothing more than an enormous edifice erected to allow us to deceive ourselves as to our real, base natures? Suddenly it feels less like we're looking over a barrier at these kids and their terrifyingly Hobbesian reality, and more like we're looking in a mirror.
Which brings us to the third reading of the film. In an initial classroom scene we decipher that the teacher is talking about the Ukraine in the context of the EU, and knowing that even now protests that have already claimed many lives are ongoing in that young country, initially spurred by the unpopular policy of increasing isolationism from EU influence, we couldn’t help but cast it in a political light. So much an impassioned statement on the corruption that is endemic to closed systems, the brutality into which societies can devolve if they become too insular and the untrustworthiness of internal authorities who lack external accountability, it’s on this last level that “The Tribe” makes a case, not just for the storytelling talents of its director and the originality of its premise, but for actual, real-world importance. It might sound glib, but it’s the literal truth: “The Tribe” left us speechless. [A]