‘The Tribe’ movie review: stark, stunning Ukrainian drama told in sign language


There are three things you need to know about The Tribe before you see it:

1. The film unfolds entirely in Ukrainian sign language, which is left unsubtitled. A title card at the beginning of the feature lets you know that this is not a projection error, but rather the intent of the filmmakers.

2. It’s composed entirely of wide-shot long takes. Scenes usually last for 10-15 minutes or more, without the benefit of edits, close-ups, etc.; along with struggling to understand what the characters are saying to each other, you’ll also struggle to identify the individual characters in each scene. 

3. Besides the filmmaking technique creating an obstacle for audience engagement in the movie, the actual story the film tells is stark and uncompromising, and culminates in a sequence of stunning brutality. 

It goes without saying that The Tribe is a difficult film to watch. That’s almost the point of what writer-director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky is trying to accomplish here: to force you to pay close attention just to be able to understand what is going on, then recoil in horror once you do. 

But it’s also an extremely impressive piece of filmmaking that fully exploits its central conceits and ends up wowing us with technique – especially remarkable coming from a writer-director making his feature debut. I wasn’t always able to precisely follow what was unfolding in The Tribe, but the control of craft on display here – which includes a number of how-did-they-do-that shots – had me hooked. 

The story, or at least as much of it as we can make out, is relatively simple: a new kid struggles to fit in at a boarding school for the deaf-mute, and subsequently falls in with the wrong crowd. That wrong crowd involves a group of petty thieves and drug dealers who also, with the help of their shop teacher, run a prostitution ring at the local truck stop.

Things take a dark course for the central protagonist when he falls in love with one of the deaf-mute prostitutes that he is supposed to be pimping. A sex scene between the two is strikingly frank, with Slaboshpitsky’s staging leaving nothing to the imagination; this is also apparent in the increasingly disturbing sequences involving rape, abortion, and climactic bloodshed. 

It’s important to note that as dark as the film gets, the director frequently reminds you he is in control with a brand of sadistic dark humor that plays up the film’s central conceit. This is especially apparent during a truck stop sequence that involves a backup beeper which (of course) the characters cannot hear, and the climax, which could not have occurred as it did if the characters were not deaf. 

The Tribe is not an easy film to watch – and certainly not for all tastes – but it is an unforgettable one. The cinematography by Valentyn Vasyanovych (who also did the editing, or at least what little editing there is here) is a work of art in its own right, stark but beautifully composed, with those long takes down staircases and through dormitory hallways frequently leaving you wondering how they were accomplished.

I get the long-take technique, I get the brutality. But why leave the film unsubtitled? The easy answer is that Slaboshpitsky wants to portray how society views these characters – people watch the deaf communicate amongst themselves, but struggle to understand them, even in their home country. The film certainly achieves that goal, but it seems like a concept for a simpler movie – there’s just so much else going on here that the lack of subtitles feels like another provocation from the director. 

In a controversial decision, The Tribe was not selected as Ukraine’s official submission to the Academy Awards (where it had a real chance of drawing a nomination), with voters instead choosing Oles Sanin’s The Guide. Director Slaboshpitsky issued a formal complaint, noting that three members of the (small) selection committee were involved with the production of the latter film. 

Seen at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2014.

The Tribe


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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