2nd opinion: The Tribe (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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2nd opinion: The Tribe (2014)

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Today's review is a rare second opinion of The Tribe, first covered by Kyle as part of the Milwaukee Film Festival last year.  Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy writes and directs The Tribe and stars Grigoriy Fesenko and Yana Novikova.

Cold and finalCinema has been an excellent tool to gauge the feelings and ideology of a given population as it progresses through the years. In America, the decadence of the ’20s gave way to gangster films and the subsequent moral backlash resulting in the Hays code. More recently, some of the best American films have focused on the economic effect the Recession had, giving us the instant classic Blue Ruin and the also excellent Mud. If you share in my outlook, then the second you finish the Ukrainian drama The Tribe, we should be cautious in how we develop our relationship with the embattled country moving forward.

The Tribe is not an animalistic exploration, nor an exploitative view of the youth of Ukraine. Instead it is visualizing the anguish of a community who is still able to communicate their wants and needs, but not in a way we are accustomed to. From their fellow students to the mostly absent adults who only appear when their authority is needed, be it legal or no, the Ukrainians of The Tribe live in a silent bubble of education, pain, and experience. What director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy does is distill the struggle of the modern Ukrainian citizen in a way which does not need to be translated into other languages, since the language they “speak” is one of human experience.

This might seem a strange way to look at sign language as it is still somewhat mediated by the origin country. But one of the massive accomplishments Slaboshpytskiy pulls off with The Tribe is recognizing that the inherent physicality of sign language is more than enough to communicate a story. I love the way he sets up this expectation with an extra-wide shot of a bus station at the beginning. We’ve grown so accustomed to audio queues about what characters are doing that it’s an immediate, but fair, puzzle to figure out who we are focusing on. The intertitle at the beginning telling us that there will be no verbal dialogue is unnecessary, and a strange lack of faith in Slaboshpytskiy's considerable strength as a director as he escalates the complexity of the shots.

The Tribe relies on clear blocking and long shots to keep the sign language clear and show how few paths these kids have.

The Tribe relies on clear blocking and long shots to keep the sign language clear and show how few paths these kids have.

Slaboshpytskiy places the performers of The Tribe in a barren expanse, with buildings that seem to have burst out of the earth and walls which have little color and no decoration. This has two functions, the first to make sure that our focus is maintained on the characters as they move through the empty corridors of the school and town, and the second is to emphasize just how insular and alone this community is. Considering how Ukraine has been used as a chess piece in the global contest between Putin’s Russian and the rest of the world, it’s little surprise we are watching a film where there is little visual hope and utter isolation.

But this isolation is far from a thematic trick, and brings what sounds we are able to make out frighteningly clear. Slaboshpytskiy’s decision for non-professional actors was a good one, as early we join Serhiy (Grigoriy Fesenko) as he accompanies school thugs to shake down some of the students, and we catch involuntary sounds of rage where a trained actor might have focused on just the sign language. The signing is so aggressive and the glares so intense that the coming thunk of each punch is the logical conclusion to the violent explosions of breath from Serhiy and his crew. It’s funny how, stripped of the empty promise of language, each action has immediate consequences where in a “typical” story we would hear verbal duels, please, and threats.

What potential romanticism the various clashes and physical relationships could have generated is null when the on-screen representation is limited to those consequences. Slaboshpytskiy visualizes this beautifully when the crew descends on a rusty theme park for a party. It should be a cause for celebration, but we hear the creaking of the rides, the thirsty gulps of alcohol, and rustle of the soundtrack as each figure rustles against one another, and with each creak the question doesn’t become if the crew will break, but when.

An interesting theme through the movie is how the kid's pecking order is preparing them for a long life of being assigned roles.

An interesting theme through the movie is how the kid's pecking order is preparing them for a long life of being assigned roles.

So if The Tribe is a world without romance, then that leaves little room to mourn those who fall. This is where the reality of many of the crew’s inability to hear sneaks up on us and Slaboshpytskiy creates an entirely unsentimental stance on death. There’s one chilling sequence at the turning point of the film where Serhiy is called up to replace a boy who was lighting a cigarette in one moment and, unable to hear the semi behind him, is crushed to death. The grief is brief, and the single red light of the truck over the exposed leg of the now deceased boy is the only visual sign of his death. If we mark the passage of time by ritual, then the ritual must continue with another boy, and Serhiy is as good as anyone else.

This is why I reject The Tribe as animalistic, because evolution is explicitly denied by the Slaboshpytskiy’s scenario. I felt a growing chill through each scene because it follows an implacable and clear logic. The crew wants food, they take food, they want a girl, they take the girl – and Serhiy is not above any of this. Slaboshpytskiy creates an environment intended to stagnate any potential development of the students, and when a pregnancy threatens to block the desire of Anya (Yana Novikova), she deals with it in the same chilling manner as the rest of the film. Our minds, so used to distancing ourselves through dialogue, are subjected to her experience as she is, and my body quaked with the consequences.

Slaboshpytskiy is not exploitative with this approach, but I see how it could be seen that way. When we first see the crew their limbs are flailing around like a rat king. But would it really be so different if they were all chattering away, using their limbs for emphasis and not necessity? No, and that necessity to be heard – to be felt – by any means necessary is the nightmare at the center of The Tribe. Better to be in America where our dramas focus on suburbs we once had, then in Ukraine where there is never a safe haven when all you have is struggle.

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Tail - The TribeThe Tribe (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy.
Starring Grigoriy Fesenko and Yana Novikova.

Posted by Andrew

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