The Tribe Review (Ukraine) - 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival
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2014 Milwaukee Film Festival (#4) – The Tribe

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The Tribe (Ukraine)

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The Tribe – Dir. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky (4/5)

The Tribe sounds like a gimmick at first: a Ukrainian film in which only untranslated, un-subtitled sign language is spoken, set in a boarding school for the deaf. This could be an idea easily overcome with its own novelty, but thanks to a combination of straightforward visual storytelling, a cast that can draw on standard narrative types while effectively twisting these types in unique and clearly rendered ways, and a keen sense on director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's part for the effect that the constant almost-silence will have on a viewing audience, The Tribe ends up being one of the most distinct films at the festival.

To the first two points, the film follows a new student (it occurs to me now that we don't ever get any of the character's names) as he arrives at a boarding school and falls in with a group of thuggish older kids. This new-kid scenario is clear enough from some basic images—he wanders lost with a large suitcase, has some strangers point out the right direction on his map, arrives at the school and speaks with the principal, etc. When he starts to meet other students we get the typical stable of characters for this type of story: the class showoff, the bossy kid who's going to show him the ropes, the “cool” older kids who regard him with a bored glance, the girl that catches his eye, the shop teacher who's a little too close to the students—we don't need expository dialogue here because the situation is nothing new.

The effect this has, then, is to shift our attention purely to two other senses: sight and sound. The visuals of the film are somehow very bold and drained at the same time—there are shots where it seems as if someone color-corrected a Kubrick film and then added some decay. The boarding house itself is almost prison-like, with long dreary concrete hallways and iron doors that lead to tiny 4-bunk rooms. The cinematography manages to make the film actually feel cold and wet (think a less wintry Let the Right One In).

The Tribe 2

We follow the new student for a little bit as he starts to fit in at the school, where we very quickly realize the students are all but abandoned outside of class-time. Only one other adult at the school is featured prominently, and all other adults in the film are either victims or victimizers. I'm using adult here as a comparative term, as the older students and their activities would fit right into an organized crime film. They attack a man on his way home from a grocery store; they run scams to steal from passengers on a local train; some of them are involved in a small prostitution ring involving fellow students.

But this isn't simply an updated A Clockwork Orange, where out-of-control teenage behavior is amped up and warped into savage violence—and part of the reason The Tribe works on a different level is not only the absence of dialogue, but the heightened role of other sounds that results. We'll occasionally get the sound of hands slapping together or air expelled in a hiss or grunt during more emphatic conversations, but for the most part we're made to focus on the sounds of footsteps, of bodies colliding, of doors shutting—and the images take on a primitive quality where devoid of any complex reasoning for their actions, “the tribe's” activities must be boiled down to their most basic elements. They attack and steal for food and money. They fight over the girls they want, who very literally have no voice or say in the matter themselves. There are a few sex scenes in movie, and they have a kind of raw, animalistic nature to them (they are also explicit enough to ensure the film will never see any kind of mainstream release). Disturbingly, we can't quite know the exact nature of the relationship between those involved, and these scenes act to establish and confirm yet another hierarchy within the larger social structure of the school.

There is a lot going on here regarding the way such structures enable and prompt various types of abuse, and the larger picture of young people operating on such a primal level under supposed supervision and guidance has obvious political implications. The film is also often very violent—with two scenes in particular likely to upset audiences beyond what they may expect—and one would be right to question what purpose the ultimate escalation of this violence serves. In the end, The Tribe may fall prey to overindulging its impulses the same way the characters do. Yet despite all there is to work out once the film is over, this is a unique, forceful experience that's worth seeking out if you're looking for something a bit more challenging.

*Next Update (Tomorrow, Wednesday, Oct. 8) – The outrageous and subversive Wetlands, fresh off its Sundance debut, and Hirokazu Koreeda's Like Father Like Son.

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Posted by Kyle Miner

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