The Tribe

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday June 17, 2015

A scene from 'The Tribe'
A scene from 'The Tribe'  

Writer/director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy dares us to immerse ourselves in "The Tribe," a film of eerie silence and cool, unblinking composure.

The movie follows the subsuming of a young man named Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) into a remorseless culture of exploitation and brutality in a Ukranian boarding school for the deaf. Sergey is lost in the very first scene, seeking directions to the school; he never quite finds his way, as it turns out, though his erratic course wends compellingly through violence, sex, and love.

As soon as Sergey starts at the school he's snapped up a cadre of swaggering young thugs, Russian Mafia wannabe types who rob and beat unwary townspeople and prey on their fellow students. This includes pimping their female classmates out to johns at a local truck stop, and then pocketing the proceeds.

When one of the more seasoned pimps is run over by a truck -- he isn't able to hear it backing toward him -- Sergey is put in charge of the nightly truck stop solicitations. But he can't stand seeing one of the girls, Anya (Yana Novikova), being rogered by the clientele. When he attempts to prevent her from turning tricks, he's castigated and demoted to selling push animals on a train -- a gig that provides him with fresh opportunities for theft. At first, Sergey thinks that the cash he's able top make on the sly by stealing from unattended bags will provide him the resources he needs to provide for Anya, but his dreams conflict with her naive enjoyment of the pimps' plans for her; they mean to send her to Italy, where she can continue to sell herself for their enrichment.

Slaboshpytskiy's lens is in no hurry to go anywhere, and seems to have no reason for close-ups. The result is a series of long, static shots that contain the action rather than attempt to add to it with handheld, documentary-style camerawork. It's only when the characters move that the camera does, too, following these youthful predators around the school grounds where they are largely left to attend to their own affairs, with only minimal interference from any adults -- the exception being a wood shop teacher (Olexandr Panivan) who actively participates in their criminal doings. The implication is clear: These are kids who merely being warehoused. That they have taken to a life of crime is a natural response to the neglect they're experiencing, and the insular nature of their social group.

The camera's languid gaze doesn't shy away from sex, beatings, murder, or even an abortion; the violent scenes are quick, and not glamorized, and the sex is straightforward. As for the abortion, it's perhaps the most pain-inducing thing you're likely to see in the movies, though Anya's screams of anguish move neither the abortionist nor the camera's placid eye.

Those screams are a rare thing, by the way. The film includes plenty of natural background noise -- traffic, the murmurs of a crowd -- but the deaf characters don't laugh aloud, and neither do they weep. They do huff, once in a while, when exasperated, but that's about it. The fact that the camera observes, oftentimes, from something of a remove further filters out incidental noises. There is no score, no Foley work, no voiceover; neither are there subtitles, so the viewer is left without even a mental "voice" to speak the dialogue. Even characters we might suppose to be hearing -- the abortionist, the truckers -- say nothing when dealing with the deaf teenagers.

The result is that we are the deaf ones, now, and we are left to piece the story together as best we can. (Even those in the audience who communicate with American Sign Language are going to have to rely on context and supposition, because Ukrainian sign is much different.)

Using a palette of cool colors -- such as a blue wall that serves as a backdrop for one of the film's more intense sex scenes -- Slaboshpytskiy communicates not just the bitterness of the Ukraine winter, but the social chill in which these young people live. Even a final, spasmodic sequence of violence unfolds with something akin to numbness and lack of affect. There is no music in the world Slaboshpytskiy's set out to show to us, and the only glow of hope or tenderness comes from fleeting sparks that soon wink out in the cold.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.