Once every few years a film comes along which immediately feels so original and vital that your preconceived expectations of the art form are challenged. Whilst that inspiring instinct is invoked by The Tribe, it is also suppressed by the film’s unrelenting brutality, on both a physical and metaphorical level. The film charts the devastating experience of a serious-minded youth, Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) ,who is assigned to a chilly and dilapidated boarding school. Falling under the sway of the institution’s gang, Sergey experiences a brutal hazing exercise and then becomes enmeshed with the school’s alpha delinquents, meddling in a mugging here and some narcotic abuse there, whilst the crew also conduct their own brutal protection racket and, rather more seriously, pimp out two young girls, Anna (Yana Novikova) and her friend (Rosa Babiy) to sexually service the nearby trucker community. This may sound like a somewhat conventional pathway for a serious and dour example of contemporary world cinema, but The Tribe has one fascinating ace up its sleeve – the boarding house is a school for the deaf and all the non-professional actors communicate only in sign language, the film yielding no consideration for audience comfort with no voiceover, no subtitles, and (quite frankly, as the plot gains traction) no mercy.
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s audacious debut is a deeply troubling and provocative drama, a hermetic sealed world of ritual and tribal instincts, with a troubling treatise at its core. It harks back to silent cinema, where the audience was predisposed to assimilate and absorb the plot through body language, figure movement and non-verbal cues, yet the film also feels completely fresh and revolutionary, commanding the audience to make cognitive connections not normally charged through our preprogrammed contemporary cinema. The film is carefully staged in extremely long alienating tableaux, oscillating with prowling steadicam sequences which immediately evoke the similarly insolent work of Alan Clarke, with a similar ferocious marriage of form and social solvency; a cold desperation and discombobulation which these proponents of violence trade upon each other and the innocent. No extraneous dialogue or indeed any verbal interaction with the hearing community is made other than financial transactions. The Tribe also has no soundtrack other than the diagetic drone of distant traffic and mild expressive grunts of the boarding house’s inmates fighting and fucking, the sound of near silence draping the film in a sense of severe solitude.
I should warn viewers that the film is exceptionally violent and distressing in a number of scenes. I’m not talking about ugly and distasteful bouts of violence like those from von Trier or Refn in their most mischievous moods, but genuine, nausea-inducing incidents on par with Irreversible or A Serbian Film, tattooing this piece of work with the slightly illogical disclaimer that although it is unquestionably a powerful cinematic statement, I never want to see it ever again. Although there is a temptation to read the film as a contemporary comment on the slowly disintegrating and divisive experience of the Ukraine, I prefer to consider the film as a brutal exercise on the consequences of isolation and alienation. Perhaps it’s also a mediation on how cinema communicates through sight and sound, and how we process those conditioned instincts after a century of assimilation, forged through the fulcrum of a disaffected and neglected youth. This is an aggressive debut that doesn’t remain silent, which instantly marks Slaboshpytskiy as a compelling new voice on the world stage.
– John McEntee