Locarno Review: Disturbing, Riveting Sign Language Film 'The Tribe'
by Alex Billington
August 13, 2014
Two of 2014's best art films focus on disabilities - Blind, directed by Eskil Vogt, an exceptional film about a woman going blind that I reviewed from Berlinale; and The Tribe, directed by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, a brutal but incredible Ukrainian film about a group of deaf students. The Tribe first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in the Critic's Week sidebar, winning multiple awards at the end of that fest. I caught the film at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland - it is disturbing but powerful. The film is presented entirely in sign language, without any subtitles or translation or dialogue. It's the beginning of sign language cinema.
As much as I would love to tell everyone to go out and see The Tribe as soon as possible, it's sometimes just too disturbing to condone completely (I'll get more into that later) and I think that plays to a fault. There are a few scenes that most viewers won't be able to watch at all, and while it's incredible they pulled these scenes off to begin with, my screening had numerous walk outs at various points - a sign of how it can just be too much. That said, what is extraordinary is the way it uses a new style of cinematic communication - sign language, and the art of gestures and body movement, without using any dialogue or any other words to convey feelings and emotions. There's no music, it's all diegetic, which also helps heighten the suspense.
Slaboshpitsky's The Tribe is set in Ukraine and follows a group of kids at a school for the deaf, where they escape locked doors day and night to participate in illicit activities. They aren't going out to drink beer and stay up late, instead the boys run a prostitution ring involving two deaf girls, and there's a lot of fighting, sex, money, and assault/robbery involved. While the real world situation in Ukraine has taken a turn for the worse in recent current events, the film plays on that already-familiar idea of how corrupt and brutal it is in that country. These kids are doing this to try and live a better life, to escape this for almost anything better.
What is particularly impressive with this film is the way it can tell such a remarkably gripping and poignant story without any actual language, or spoken words. It challenges the audience to not only sit uncomfortably during long, vicious scenes but also requires that they attempt to figure out on their own what is being said without knowing anything that is being said. It can be exhausting and confusing at times (as someone who doesn't know any sign language) to watch lengthy scenes of discussion/banter between characters and not understand a thing, but that's what makes the film incredible. It shows us just how much we can understand through other actions and moments without the need for dialogue. It more often than not works very well.
In addition to the sign language, the best part of the film is the cinematography (by Valentyn Vasyanovych) - lengthy long takes that last upwards of five minutes, and smoothly progress from room to room following the action and characters as they navigate this dark world. There are moments where you'll be holding your breath, occasionally gasping at the sights you're seeing on screen, wondering how this isn't really happening and you shouldn't be calling this out and complaining. But then you'll remember this is Ukraine, and this stuff happens all the time, that's why he's showing it to us in this way - to make us think differently about the realities of an impoverished and troubled world, and how people will do anything to get away from it.
This is a film that deserves all the acclaim it's getting for being so unique, so incredible, so bold in concept and execution. But it also deserves to be criticized for being a bit too long, overly disturbing with scenes that no audience needs to see for more than a few seconds, and for its raw brutality that may end up numbing viewers who might've otherwise been more affected if it weren't as indulgent on the nasty side of things. That said, The Tribe is a film that will make its mark in cinema history nonetheless, and I'm looking forward to the discussions that arise as it continues to play around the world. If you want a challenge, see this film.
Alex's Locarno Rating: 8 out of 10