The Tribe is an inventive and uncompromising film about a group of teenagers at a residential deaf school in Ukraine. There’s no spoken dialogue, translation or voiceover. The action takes place mainly in the school itself — a bleak and dilapidated institution with peeling walls and starkly lit long corridors. After new arrival Sergey’s initiation into school rituals, he is quickly co-opted into its dominant gang. They use charity goods, donated then sold to finance the school, as a front for robbery. Sergey becomes a pimp for two female classmates who service drivers at a night-time truck stop. He and one of the girls find some fleeting tenderness in an affair, but this triggers a series of events the outcome of which is never likely to be happy.
The naturalistic soundtrack is brilliantly effective in its detailed observation. Slamming doors echo down corridors; sharp intakes of breath punctuate rapid signed conversation; and every sudden burst of violence is amplified so that you can feel it. The film’s visual style alternates between long, fluid takes and others shot from a fixed perspective. The camera watches, unmoving and unmoved at scenes of sometimes unbearable violence or humiliation. The lack of translation of the dialogue is not a gimmick. We understand the characters’ conversations through the speed, style and manner of their signing. Almost all of it is abrupt and aggressive.
Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy said he wanted to “present a world where people are naked”. These youngsters may be alienated, but they are still thinking, feeling human beings. The deaf actors, all non-professionals, have an intensity and physicality that gives the story added authenticity. The only classroom scene takes place near the beginning of the film, as Sergey is introduced to his fellow pupils by the geography teacher. A map on the blackboard shows Ukraine as part of western Europe. There is, however, no overt political message here. The power of the film is in its ambiguity.
This is a brutal, bewildering and harsh world where only the strongest survive and it seems almost impossible to retain any sense of morality or humanity. Perhaps he is drawing a parallel between the lives of deaf youngsters isolated in decaying, unforgiving institutions on the one hand, and on the other, a Ukrainian society caught between its Stalinist history and a pitiless free market which offers no hope or future. Who is the tribe? Does the title refer to the gang, or the deaf pupils in the film, or to wider society? This film won the Grand Prize at Cannes, but it’s no surprise that the Ukrainian government has disowned it. The images and sounds linger in the mind, forcing you to search for meaning in this pitiless portrait of a broken society.