You can’t look away from Ukrainian director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s new movie The Tribe, which opens today in New York. This is true in the usual figurative sense—the movie about a gang of teen Ukrainian thugs and prostitutes is a gritty, lurid parade of shocks—but it’s also literally true. If you look away, you’ll miss way too much.
That’s because The Tribe is communicated entirely through Ukrainian Sign Language with no voiceovers, subtitles, or translation. The movie centers on a group of kids at a boarding school for the deaf—none of them hear or speak, nor does virtually anyone they encounter. The only score it has is the ambient sound of speechless people (and sometimes automobiles) moving through space. You know none of the characters’ names and their motivations are often foggy. Certainly, the nuances of their conversations will be lost on anyone who isn’t fluent in Ukrainian Sign Language. But that, more than anything, is what will make The Tribe so absorbing to outsiders—the sign language we watch is so evocative and expressive that it can make us feel like we’re this close to getting what’s happening.
Often we are—The Tribe is a movie that demands attention and requires patience, but frequently pays off with stunning explanations that instantly click previously disparate-seeming parts into place. It is a movie that is difficult—seven-minute-single-take-abortion-scene difficult—but not impossible. That it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, or probably will ever see again, makes it well worth your efforts.
Like Larry Clark’s Kids, the Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What, and Sean Baker’s upcoming Tangerine (a hit at this year’s Sundance), The Tribe employs several previously non-professional actors who belong to the culture the film’s outsider director is exploring. Slaboshpitsky isn’t deaf nor does he even understand sign language (he used interpreters to ensure the script he wrote was executed accurately), and that otherness is used to stunning effect. By merely presenting us a world in which everyone is communicating in a language that the vast majority of the film’s audience does not use, we’re challenged to experience how it is to be deaf in a hearing world. If the robbing, stealing, fucking, raping, pimping, fighting young thugs of the movie don’t exactly embody the average “deaf experience,” the movie’s setup more than compensates as a useful empathetic tool. In fact, the kids in this film move with such stealth in executing their crimes that the movie has a tendency to elevate to a superpower that which is frequently viewed by able-bodied culture as a disability.
Cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych’s shots linger midrange (they have to be far back enough so that you can see multiple people signing to each other), and most of the scenes unfold in single takes. It gives the entire movie an unsettling, voyeuristic feel. Like an impossible-to-quote, straight-faced A Clockwork Orange, The Tribe is an unflinching portrait of violence that only intensifies over time. Regarding the film’s extremity, Slaboshpitsky told Indiewire: “The realistic violence can be better than carnivalesque violence, which seems unproblematic to most people. But real violence disturbs you. It shouldn’t attract people; it should shock them.” And so it does. I’m so desensitized from a lifetime of watching horror that it’s rare for a movie to make me recoil; The Tribe did that several times.
In both its framework and contents, The Tribe refuses to compromise. It is utterly itself—so invested in its universe that its force of will is palpable. It might seem strange that something so grim and stark in practice is such a joy conceptually, but that just goes to show how truly special The Tribe is.