Monday, June 15, 2015

The Tribe: Time to Brush on Your Ukrainian Sign Language

The industrial district of Kiev still known as “Stalinka” is so soulless and depressed, its nickname is probably more fitting than ever. It is here that Sergey will attend a state run boarding school for the deaf. He will learn the school’s lessons quickly, despite hardly attending any classes in Myroslav Slaboshpytkiy’s The Tribe (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Perhaps more than any previous film, Slaboshpytkiy’s Tribe was conceived as means of putting the shoe on the other foot and forcing us to walk a while with it. Following a bold and already celebrated/notorious strategy, Slaboshpytkiy shot Tribe entirely in Ukrainian sign language, without offering any subtitles or narration to guide us through. Frankly, we will get lost from time to time (that’s sort of the point), but we can follow the broad strokes fairly well. After all, these kids are not exactly chatty.

Sergey soon learns the school is run by a very real high school mafia, led by King and “advised” by the shop teacher. Their primary illicit business involves pimping out classmates to drivers at the nearby truck-stop, like the apparently willing Anya and Svetka. After some initial hazing, Sergey quickly rises through the ranks, taking over the day-to-day operations following King’s jarring death by misadventure. However, he breaks the unspoken rule when he falls for Anya.

The overall effect of Slaboshpytkiy’s silent treatment is a mixed bag, but there are two scenes in Tribe that are so viscerally shocking, they will make you audibly gasp. A good deal of their power is indeed derived from the silence. They are also masterly blocked out by Slaboshpytkiy, causing us to wonder if his non-professional actors (who are also deaf in real life) walked away from their scenes unscathed, while underscoring the dangers of deafness in the wider, unaccommodating world. Of course, the school is supposed to be a shelter, but it is anything but.

Disturbingly, viewing The Tribe feels like watching a cold, violent documentary unfold. The young cast is so utterly convincing and free of mannerisms or artifice, they never seem to be performing. Still, it is worth noting the chemistry developed by Grigoriy Fesenko and Yana Novikova, as well as the gutsiness of their explicit but decidedly non-erotic sex scenes.

In a way, The Tribe is the anti-boarding school movie. Usually, the audience is invited to vicariously share the student camaraderie and sense of belonging, whereas Slaboshpytkiy deliberately keeps us on the outside looking in. Many times, we might actually wish we could join the pupils at Hogwarts or wherever, but in the case of The Tribe, no thanks. Yet, the self-contained nature of their environment makes it such an effective analog for the pre-revolutionary, Russian-backed Ukrainian regime.

Regardless, The Tribe’s vibe is totally distinctive and completely uncompromising. Timid patrons should be warned of its style, content, and pretty much everything else, but it is a truly immersive cinematic experience that edgier cineastes will appreciate. Recommended highly but selectively, The Tribe opens this Wednesday (6/17) in New York at Film Forum.