A tough and remarkable first feature film by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, The Tribe is a harrowing story of a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf and mute kids. A young man finds his way to the school, on what we asume is the first day of class, only to find himself down a rabbit hole of abuse and corruption. Usually, when one thinks of disabled children, one thinks of innocent, vulnerable beings, but in this case this vulnerability is exploited to turn them into productive members of the criminal class.
This is the story of a young man that is dehumanized by violence and abuse; that is, something we have seen in many films before, but because the setting is the world of deaf mutes, and Slaboshpitsky has chosen to film it in sign language, without subtitles, it takes an added dimension. He fully immerses us in the silent, yet enormously expressive world of people who can’t hear nor speak, who happen to live in a dedicated and efficient system of corruption.
All the recent movies that I have seen from Russia and Ukraine in this case, are concerned with the pall of a corruption so toxic and entrenched that it poisons every aspect of life. Slaboshpitsky takes this to an extreme, making the setting for the breakdown of civilized society this dilapidated school where deaf and mute kids are not only not helped to integrate into society, but are warehoused and turned into a gang of thugs. If only the masterminds of corruption would apply their ruthless efficiency to doing good. Alas.
We learn the rules as the young man learns them. The deaf mute carpentry teacher is running a racket, from panhandling, to robbery, to prostitution with these kids, but Slaboshpitsky shows us how there is always someone higher in the chain of command. As the young man soon finds out, it starts with the main school bully, who is in thrall to another bully higher than him, to the carpentry teacher, all the way up to a bureaucrat who has successfully made this school into his little mafia fiefdom.
In the first minutes of the film we see a school opening ceremony with the institute’s principal and assorted teachers, a beleaguered teacher in a classroom tries to teach the older kids something about Europe, but then these figures of authority disappear, never to be seen again. The kids are on their own, alone at night in the empty corridors, in their narrow cots, in a place that’s falling apart. No parents, no guards, no teachers. There is no solace, there is no order but that of violence and intimidation. The social stratification of the school as a hive for criminals is as sophisticated as an ant colony. This boarding school is an apt metaphor for the state at large.
The young man, burly and sweet looking, promptly understands that in order to survive, he needs to show brute force. We instinctively sense (this is one of those rare films that makes us question all the clichés and stereotypes that ordinary movies siphon into our brains) that he is a good kid who will not make it, but he is tough, and soon he is promoted through the ranks, by way of an unfortunate incident which is one of the most swiftly shocking things I’ve ever seen onscreen.
Then, as they say, shit happens, in the form of feelings. He falls for a girl, a fellow student, and their grudging intimacy, shown full blown in a couple of raw and powerful sex scenes, their found humanity, is the cause of his downfall. He wants connection and normalcy in a place that won’t have it. The end is beyond tragic.
Not only is it remarkable that we can follow the story from watching what happens, trying to understand it only through action and expression, without words, but Slaboshpitsky’s formal control of the medium is extraordinary. The camera work is astonishing, the storytelling always focused. I was wondering how the script was written. Did Slaboshpitsky write dialog and then translate it to sign language, or did he just indicate the gist of conversations? There is no music, we can only hear the sounds these people cannot hear, their muffled voices as they scream at each other in silence.
This movie is not for the faint of heart, but it is an extraordinary film.