But even if that headline puts you off, see “The Tribe” (I’ll tell you how).
Somewhere along the line – there’s a remote chance it might have been during “Children of a Lesser God” but more likely was this PBS piece regarding the often-incendiary subject of the cochlear implant – I was permanently struck by the notion that this technology, to many in the Deaf community, was tantamount to a genocidal device. This, because the Deaf community in many ways resembles a closed one, bearing fierce self-determination and an almost hermetically sealed culture.
Such is a continuum of course, like anything else – as anyone who’s experienced Marlee Matlin on “The L Word” or “Celebrity Apprentice” is aware – but even so, with “The Tribe” I greatly looked forward to a glimpse inside the culture itself, to learn more about, and to an albeit minimal extent experience, its rich identity.
With regard to this, “The Tribe” delivered in spades. Inspired by Ukrainian writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s desire to explore silent film as an art form, “The Tribe” is delivered with no subtitles, no score, extended uninterrupted sequences, and a cast of non-professional Deaf actors. The only auditory impression Hearing viewers such as myself experience is the ambient sound of footsteps, traffic, wildlife, and the other sounds of the surrounding world.
From a filmmaking perspective, “The Tribe” is a marvelous accomplishment. Though the presence of ambient sound sets us outside our characters’ experience of true silence, it prevents us from getting lost in our own minds as we watch, and thus keeps us fully grounded in their circumstances (I tried it both ways, and ambient sound was the better call). Because they speak in Ukrainian Sign Language, we have to round out the details on our own (it was much like watching Sarah’s Key when the subtitling function at the theater failed). It is a spatial and symbolic endeavor, much like watching Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”.
“The Tribe” stumbles, however, with the actual telling of its story, with its insistence that we simply accept what it puts forth without the occasional nod as to context or reason. I’ve said it many times: I’ll happily follow you into any world you want, but it has to hang together, has to make sense, within whatever world you craft.
Here we meet Sergey, a upperclass-aged student new to a boarding school for the deaf. He (and we) arrive just as a dressy student-faculty assembly concludes in a courtyard, and the denizens seem a happy bunch. In the classroom and cafeteria Sergey finds himself subjected to the boundary-testing common to all new kids on the block, but soon finds himself taken under the wing of a fine-looking chap. Unfortunately said chap turns out not to be the student council president-type but rather the school gang leader operating an independent drugs and prostitution enterprise.
Contrary to its IMDb synopsis of “a deaf teenager struggles to fit into the boarding school system,” “The Tribe” is essentially a portrait of the cruel activities and ugly outcomes of criminal living, and leaves too many unanswered questions as it proceeds. Such as…
Where are the adults?? Why is there no residence hall monitor? Why do the dorm rooms have no locks – is this cultural, whether Ukrainian or Deaf, or both? If it’s cultural and thus something to be assumed, why does no one ever attempt to keep certain people out of certain spaces? Is it material to this school? Or is it just convenient to telling the story, and thus mere contrivance? And how on earth is one particular character even alive??
The near-absence of faculty or administrative presence is puzzling, particularly in light of the fact that in the first scene they seem to be successfully creating a reasonably healthy environment, and are responsible for a mere handful of students; the thought that an operation like this could run riot out of one of the dorms thus lands as peculiar. We’re left to fill in such gaps on our own, with no indication as to whether or not we’re correct, (for example, I reasoned that the gang leader was searching Sergey’s skin for affiliation tattoos, while another viewer assumed he was looking for track marks).
All this of course argues for the reason that these kids (and they are, in fact, still kids) are in the soup they are, that if they had proper nurturing and attention, their energies would be directed elsewhere; such could certainly be argued for our protagonist. However in the absence of such answers and despite the unique perspective, we’re left with little except a story of usurious thugs, hence the interpersonal brutality of “A Clockwork Orange”. Watching two older bullies assault a younger student doesn’t offer anything of value simply because the bullies are Deaf.
As I said with “Ant-Man”, a unique feature doesn’t mitigate the call for strong crafting, and in personal taste I don’t care for films that simply expect me to go along and not ask such questions, particularly when the only thing they offer in exchange is a string of sequences that make me weep for the human condition. There is no glory or uplifting human purpose in violence as its own end (unless you watched “Longford”, subject for another post) – and lest you think I’m eggshell delicate, I’ve been extolling the glories of “Red Dragon” and the work of Thomas Harris since 1983 to the point that people around me are sick of hearing about it (I try to control it, but it slips out nonetheless).
All this said, “The Tribe” very well worth seeing for its singular portrait of life as part of the Deaf community. I strongly urge seizing this rare chance to see it in the theater; the surrounding darkness and visual size create an experience I’m certain was diluted by a smaller-screen home viewing as was mine.
Even if so-called “harsh reality” and/or frank sexual content isn’t your style, don’t deny yourself this exceptional cinematic and cultural opportunity.
Just sit at the aisle, quietly excuse yourself once the guys are across the courtyard and out of sight, and then finish your beer at the bar over some undoubtedly lively conversation. Even at 35 minutes of screen time, “The Tribe” earns its ticket. In spades.
Story: A teenager newly arrived at a boarding school for the deaf is taken into the fold of its resident drugs and prostitution enterprise.
Themes: Loyalty, Man vs. Man
Starring: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy, Alexander Dsiadevich
Directed by: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
MPAA: Not rated, but I’d put it at the high end of R
Running time: 132 minutes
Houston release date: July 24, 2015 at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park
Tickets: Check IMDb.com or the Alamo Drafthouse website
Screened July 19, 2015 via studio screener