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The Awful Beauty of 'The Tribe'

In a bleak tale of violence and revenge, The Tribe astonishes with style even more than it shocks with content.

The Tribe

Director: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
Cast: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova
Distributor: Metrodome
Rated: 18 (UK)
UK DVD Release Date: 2015-09-14

At last one of the most talked about films of the past year arrives on home release, offering the chance to relive its awful beauty all over again. On cursory glance, everything about The Tribe screams gimmick. Set in a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf children, the entire film eschews dialogue and subtitles, choosing sign language instead. On top of that, there’s Lord of the Flies style anarchy as the kids run amok, indulging in violent crime and prostitution.

It sounds like a mix of showboating and schlock yet The Tribe is anything but. An almost impossibly accomplished first feature from Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, the finished product is bold and raw, challenging everyone to keep up.

The decision to convey dialogue via sign language is nowhere near as alienating a move (for hearing viewers) as it sounds, demonstrating once again the depth of information that can be delivered via purely visual means. If the nuance of conversation might sometimes be lost, it’s never confusing. Developments are clear not only from the facial expressions and body language, but also from the actions that precede and follow-on from conversations.

There’s also a strong reason for choosing to tell the story in this way. It’s far more than just a slick ploy to draw attention. Instead, the reliance on sign language over speech, and the refusal to offer quick get-outs in the form of subtitling, does an effective job at isolating the inhabitants of the school. They live in their own world, able to communicate without hassle only with each other. It’s an isolation enhanced by the very fact these children are shipped off to a boarding school in an anonymous town. Theirs is a separate world, created both by a lack of hearing for the unlucky children, and a seeming lack of interest from the rest of society.

Dire results come from this isolation. The school is a dingy den of vice like you wouldn’t believe. Adult supervision seems to be almost entirely lacking, barring a couple of individuals in on the criminal activities. These range from petty misdemeanour to serious crime. Bullying is rife, as seen by the treatment meted out to Grigoriy Fesenko’s newcomer, and to pretty much all the younger kids. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Led by a cadre of older boys, they engage in fights, vandalism and muggings, while pimping out two of the girls to local lorry drivers come night time.

Fesenko’s journey into this world provides the thrust of the narrative. He arrives a sullen, confused teenager, and ends a cold-blooded, violent thug. His initiation is harsh, but he shows he can defend himself, and isn’t afraid to (literally) put the boot in to unsuspecting victims. Accidents provide opportunities for him to rise in stature, until he makes the mistake of falling for one of the prostitutes, played by Yana Novikova, leaving him stuck between newly discovered violent tendencies, and a desire to save her.

This is the weakest part of the film. For all Slaboshpitsky’s mastery of form, the central love story it’s built around never feels convincing. Their moments together come with grimy authenticity, especially sex scenes stripped of glamour and theatrical passion, yet their coming together is rushed. Fesenko’s ascent, or descent given the way he behaves, into a white knight of dubious morality doesn’t ring with that same authenticity. Aside from this, the rest of the story unfolds in an effective, if rudimentary manner. Lacking the creative spark he displays in his technical choices, Slaboshpitsky at least succeeds in creating an unpleasantly interesting storyline to bring life to the world.

The Tribe deserves this as the world is a deeply impressive one. The camera captures decaying buildings and long, dimly lit corridors that suggest a desolate industrial site. Everything is basic from the bare bathrooms to simple wooden cupboards and cheap beds, and everyone comes swaddled in thick and uninspiring winter clothing. Valentyn Vasyanovych’s cinematography captures the mood perfectly, projecting the vibe of an abandoned group living inside an already side-lined society. By sitting a little way off and holding shots, he gives the impression of events occurring slightly outside our own comfortable lives. We watch the build-up to disasters without the ability to intervene, and are left only with an aftermath we have no influence over.

There are plenty of distressing scenes to hammer home this feeling. The gradual pace allows for mounting dread rather than sudden shock. The stand-out comes near the end in a sequence putting Novikova through immense suffering, but it’s not an isolated highlight. Slaboshpitsky makes the most of hearing impairments, showing the casual problems this can cause. Unable to hear the beeping of a reversing lorry, one kid goes under the back wheels, remaining blithely oblivious to the juggernaut drawing up slowly behind until the end. Even entering someone’s room becomes a different proposition when sound no longer awakens them. This is taken to horrific lengths when bedside tables and vengeance mix.

As TV encroaches ever further into the domain feature films have long presided over, The Tribe demonstrates there’s life left in the medium yet. At least in the way he tells it, Slaboshpitsky’s debut is a gamble that pays off ten times over, taking what could have been a cheap selling point, and turning it into a confident example of what visual art can produce. Aside from sparse extras consisting of a couple of behind the scenes videos, there’s every reason to own a film that deserves multiple viewings. It’s bleak and violent, and in its own disturbing way, beautiful.


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