Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s debut feature has been wowing critics and festival juries since it premiered in Critics’ week at Cannes a year ago, universally acclaimed as the calling card of a stunning new talent, a searing whatnot of something or other. Max Fischer begs to differ. The Tribe is a crock of shit; empty, leering misery-porn propped up by a mendacious gimmick, a generic arthouse-exploiter placebo for gullible chinstrokers. That’s my review, but since you did me the courtesy of clicking the link, let’s try and pad this out a bit.
Sergey is a deaf-mute teenager (potential point of contention noted, I’m just quoting the press notes). The film opens with him joining a boarding school for similarly deaf-mute children in a dour district of Kiev, where the grey compacted snow and the scabbed Soviet-era concrete blend into one. Sized up and adopted by the school’s alpha gang, he’s recruited to help run schoolyard protection rackets, mug civilians for their groceries, and pimp two girls in his class to long-distance lorry drivers. With the money he makes, he pays one of the girls, Anna (the girlfriend of the gang leader) to have sex with him. Although Anna is scornful and reluctant at first, Sergey really fucks her good, so she falls for him. Meanwhile, the teachers who are really running the whole dirty show are preparing to have Anna and her friend trafficked to Italy. A showdown is inevitable.
The character names I glean from sources external to the film, as The Tribe has no spoken dialogue at all (Slaposhspitsky elides the question of whether the teachers are also deaf and mute – and interactions with outsiders are played out wordlessly) and the characters’ use of Ukrainian sign language is not subtitled. There is also no musical score, and scenes are captured largely in competently-staged long-take static master shots, with judicious measures of spatial dynamism supplied by some excellent Steadicam work (the Steadicam operator is, in a walk, the film’s MVP; the IMDB, Wikipedia and the film’s press notes list no member of the camera department other than director of photography – and producer and editor – Valentin Vasyanovich).
Wordlessness is the film’s most obvious formal feature, and its success as an attention-grabbing gimmick is self-evident, but as a substantive element of Slaposhpitsky’s art, it is a disaster, flattening affect and rendering the capture of nuance in narrative or character impossible – in fact the film’s simple linear story is often indecipherable and its characters indistinguishable.
Is it possible that, could I understand the dialogue, my opinion would be different? Maybe. But Slapboshpitsky, in the press notes, talks about sign language as primarily akin to pantomime, dance or kabuki, and only secondarily as an actual language (he notes that “according to recent developments in medicine”, sign language will soon be dead) and likens his film to silent cinema. If we take him at his word, therefore, the version of the film experienced by people who don’t speak Ukrainian sign language is the official version. For about half of the film, I looked for something more interesting in the gaps between that version of the film and the version that would be experienced by those who could understand its dialogue, ultimately realising that I was looking for subtlety and dimensionality where none existed. Sign language is just not pantomime or kabuki designed to communicate ideas to people who don’t speak it, and if an audience can’t understand it, they are left with no communication from the characters but their residual body language.
What can that communicate? Urgency, mainly – in fact, almost exclusively. One thing you will notice if you watch the film is that you can’t communicate in sign language with someone whose back is turned, so that urgency is often, in fraught conversations, the urgency to be “heard” – and people spend a lot of time grabbing the elbows of those they are speaking to to spin them around. Paradoxically, the effect is ultimately and wearisomely, pretty much the same as if the film showed the characters constantly shouting at each other.
It is impossible to know whether it is the formal gimmick that flattens out the content of Slaboshpitsky’s work to the point where nothing is communicated beyond “people are cunts innit” and “isn’t this shot of something really horrible really cool”, or whether Slaboshpitsky is just an obnoxious and one-dimensional film maker. We’ll have to wait for his next film for evidence to be brought either way. But I would note two things.
One: Time and again in The Tribe, narrative coherence is sacrificed to sensation. The consequences of events are frequently glossed over to the point of nonsense, culminating in the fact that the film’s penultimate scene would make its final scene, on the face of it, impossible. If this is an aesthetic strategy, it’s one that doesn’t fit the film at all. And, as committed to cheap effects as he is, Slaboshpitsky cartoonishly overplays his hand time and time again, one example being in that final scene, and another example being a real-time scene of a character undergoing a backstreet bathtub abortion, for the duration of which the Kievan Vera Drake dangles a cigarette from her bottom lip, and after which she walks off brusquely, virtually still leaving her tools up her patient’s vagina. Once you’ve accommodated to the shock tactics, you just think, dude, this is silly.
Two: There’s a telling lack of respect shown by the film maker towards his young actors, who are non-professional, and themselves deaf-mute. His misprision of their use of language is emblematic of that, as is his suspiciously Larry-Clarkish eye for their ripped and skinny young bodies. If you compare Sergey’s character arc to the real person who plays him, as profiled in the film’s press notes (“Grigory [Fesenko]… is a graffiti artist, parkourist, roofer…sometimes, he writes poems. During the shooting… participation in the protests was strictly prohibited…the ban was violated repeatedly”), then Slaboshpitsky’s effective portrayal of him and people like him as little more than preverbal apes is just a fucking insult.