After picking up all the awards in the Critics’ Week Sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s Ukrainian crime drama – told entirely in sign language, no translation, no subtitles – already had plenty of buzz surrounding it by the time of its North American Premiere at TIFF. Of course, this didn’t stop someone, at the second public screening, from blurting out a loud “WHAT?!” when the title cards announced it would be in sign language: a very, very hearty laugh from the rest of the audience followed.
What sounds like a gimmick proves to be a compelling storytelling technique: we may not know exactly what’s being said between the characters, but it’s always clear what’s happening and what the relationships between them are. Shot with accomplished, formal discipline, the camera is almost always moving, guiding us through this group, pushing the action along. Almost every shot involves multiple characters: without dialogue, the space between them is all the more important. The film is gripping and terrifying, and the visceral emotions that the gesticulating from sign language evokes is essential to a story about raw emotion.
The title refers to a gang of students at a school for deaf teenagers – as well as a few seemingly outsider adults who run it – who spend their evenings prostituting out some of the girls at the school: the boys get money, and the girls get a chance to get out of the Ukraine, however unpalatable the means may be. We get introduced to The Tribe through a new boy in school, who gets handpicked to join the group. We watch as he goes through some sort of initiation where he’s forced to fight others, and before long, we learn what sordid activities the group gets up to: he’s inducted, we presume, before he knows what it’s all about.
The first time he goes out with them – that is, when he gets the honour of pimping out two of his classmates – there’s a thrilling sequence where we watch him and his mates descend several flights of stairs in the school at night, as they head out. The imagery isn’t coincidental: this is a descent into a certain kind of hell. Things get complicated, however, when he takes a liking to one of the girls and starts to question his involvement in the group. By the end, he’ll have to climb those stairs one last time in his ultimate quest for retribution. There’s a sense of despair and hopelessness in the air: in a country with so few options, things are even worse for the not-fully-able-bodied, and the extremes these kids go to feel like a logical extension of the extreme of their situation. Chilling and creepy, this is a film that demands your attention, makes you think, and reminds us just how much we don’t say when we speak.
The Tribe has been picked up by Drafthouse films for US distribution and Films We Like for Canadian distribution in 2015.