Film Review – The Tribe
Pimpin’ ain’t easy at a Ukrainian school for the deaf, for the students or the audience. The Tribe, from director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, plays as an effective experiment in how cinema communicates, with all dialogue in Ukrainian sign language, an expressive cast, and no onscreen subtitles. Its most foregrounded plot elements: an unnerving mix of youthful romance, sexual exploitation and graphic violence. The film succeeds in its apparent aims to distance and viscerally unsettle, but while its creative choices are boldly realized, they are also limiting and self-defeating.
As its title suggests, The Tribe depicts and enacts divisions, most explicitly between the audience and the film and the hearing and the deaf. In the first of many long takes, the film’s opening shot depicts its new-kid-in-school protagonist in a bus-stop conversation with a hearie. The conversation clearly occurs on the audibly-enabled woman’s terms, but the shot is framed long, positioning the audience too far away to hear. The ever-distant camera follows the protagonist to a ceremonial presentation within the school, with the administrative control it suggests is quickly positioned as irrelevant. The protagonist nigh immediately moves from outsider to a central figure in the film’s titular prostitution ring, which becomes its primary diversionary concern. Hereafter the hearing world and academic authority are positioned outside, while the film tries its damnedest to dismantle whatever initial empathy it built with its audience.
Visually, The Tribe has one of the most distinctive uses of 2.35 widescreen I’ve seen in a theater. Almost all takes are long, in both visual distance and temporal length. The film is almost completely devoid of close-ups. Most shot show head-to-toe bodies in detailed focus, isolated on both sides by the dead space of decrepit walls and semi-trailer parking lots. After its initial set-up, the school is presented as a collective ecosystem – a dour ant farm of depravity – with the specifics of individualized motivations obscured through the lack of subtitles. Scenes become exercises in slowly dawning significance. We observe the beginnings of actions before understanding their significance, and see the characters as a group before understanding their individuated motivations.
This experimentation in distancing is pushed to extremes by the horror of its subject matter. The immediate narrative mysteries the film indulges – what are these characters doing? – become tempered by how off-putting the actions are repetitively revealed to be: sexual exploitation, beatings, murder, theft, rape, and an invasive backroom medical procedure, all performed in long takes. The tone is self-serious. A schoolyard brawl, however, does recall the choreographed foregrounds and animated cheering-crowds of the Street Fighter video games.
To get a little less abstract, here’s an outline of one section of the movie’s escalating miserablism (which may be spoiler-ish, but has been recounted in other reviews):
– Our protagonist is selling toys on a train. No one wants to buy them
– He rummages around in an empty train compartment and steals a purse
– The money is for an abortion for the girl he’s both pimping and sleeping with
– We watch the apartment-bathroom abortion in a start-to-finish continuous take
– He rapes her
There are plenty of ways to handle this kind of material. The Tribe chooses laser-focused directness. Testing the audience’s resolve through grueling, violent misery is at least as old as Cannibal Holocaust (1979), and there’s a direct line between the grindhouse and the arthouse provocations of Gaspar Noé and Lars van Trier that The Tribe recalls. While I would defend many films that use these methods, I also think they play a simple game that can only go so far without attempting to compel the audience in some measure. In my reading The Tribe’s primary innovation is in pushing the technical efficiency of repulsion by removing subtitles, and with them, context and nuance. We understand readily what the characters feel, but have a much more reduced understanding of the specifics of why beyond the visceral response of pain. To apply a quote from anthropologist David Graeber, “[V]iolence is perhaps the only form of human action that holds out even the possibility of having social effects without being communicative. To be more precise: violence may well be the only way it is possible for one human being to do something which will have relatively predictable effects on the actions of a person about whom they understand nothing.” (“Dead Zones of the Imagination, p. 67 – 68). The Tribe is an engine for that kind of emotional, anti-logical response. Without subtitles, the specifics of characters’ motivations remain presented, but conspicuously obscured – at least to audience members who don’t speak Ukrainian sign language (i.e., the vast majority of international arthouse seats to which the film is being distributed). Its style eclipses its substance.
So the film plays as a concentration of elements designed to repulse: visually distant cinematography, loose plotting, extreme violence, depressive tone, and withheld access to characters’ inner worlds. One might say, well, fair enough – the subject matter and the form play with communication, rejection and empathy. The experiment works as a thought tool in an abstract sense: what can be said about how film, as a medium, selectively communicates and withholds information? Are these absent specifics really a mystery that needs to be solved? How much effort am I – as an audience member – expected to invest?
In another sense, The Tribe invites all too literal answers: filmmakers willfully choose and exclude content, meanings are explicit and latent, repellent is repellent, I already own the “Foreign Language / No Subtitles” home game, and an invasive bathroom abortion is something you better have a damn good reason for showing at length. This is why I feel the movie crosses a line from laudable artistry to crude exploitation: the mechanisms by which the movie would interrogate its audience’s engagement are exceedingly blunt and bluntly arbitrary. If it would accuse us and greater cinema for looking away from its challenging plot elements – deafness, sex workers, the turmoils of adolescence – it would be more convincing if it wasn’t making every stylistic effort to both repel us and de-contextualize our understanding. It effectively distances, but prioritizes its stylistic games over compelling. The mechanisms of repulsion obscure the mechanisms of nuance. Feel free to watch or leave. Nothing is at stake.
In my opinion, 2015 has seen two absolute masterpieces of visual storytelling: Mad Max: Fury Road, which told a story through a car chase; and The Duke of Burgundy told a story through sadomasochistic roleplay. Both films treated action as communication unto itself, as (in Mad Max’s case, literal) vehicles for narrative and characterization. The characters in these movies show who they are by what they do, with minimal dialogue. These films burst at the seams with meaning, their visuals efficient, expansive indexes of plot and potential interpretations. By contrast, The Tribe uses highly-focused visuals to imply the possibility of an internal world, which it then deliberately obfuscates with monotonous pain and obscenity. Its violence is an act of communicative minimalism – which may be art, but is also a glaring self-imposed limitation.