The Tribe, dir/wr. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, st. Grygoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Roza Babiy
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's acclaimed film may place, I suspect, many a cinema-goer firmly outside their comfort zone. It's not so much in the nature of the subject matter, although it's certainly unrelenting enough in its bleakness, but more in the film's presentation; a dialogue-free, Ukrainian sign-languaged 130-minute feature, caption-less, and wonderfully, maddeningly, voiceover and inter-title-free. Actually, that's not strictly true - there is a simple English-language textual caveat that pops up at the start of the film that explains this, although amusingly, I felt it playfully doubled as a warning; don't go rushing to the foyer in search of an usher, it seemed to intone. And although to many of us, sign language is an alien communication, I was reminded of last year's Under The Skin, in which Jonathan Glazer masterfully eschewed conventional narrational techniques whilst still maintaining a cogent level of comprehension and immersion. The Tribe is no different, and just like the increased sensitivity in the other four senses when the fifth is attenuated, Slaboshpytskiy has us scanning every inch of the frame searching for meaning. But it's not for everyone - not since Asami Yamasaki's needlework in Takashi Miike's Audition have I witnessed so many walkouts - and one scene in particular is as virtuosic as it is unflinchingly brutal in its one-take unfolding - but those receptive to a more enterprising approach to storytelling will find much here to muse upon.
The film opens with Slaboshpytskiy's most transparent (of many) nods to Michael Haneke - a locked-off static shot that utilises the expansive width of the 1:2.39 aspect ratio to capture public busses arriving and leaving a stop. With nary a note of incidental music either, it's a rather disconcerting experience, and an inherently menacing one. More astute movie-goers might have no problem with Doubt's irresolute ending, or Julie Taymor's Roman Empire/Mussolini's Italy-set Titus, but those films are still content to take us by the hand and lead us into their world; Slaboshpytskiy, like Haneke, and indeed Lars Von Trier and Gaspard Noé, demand that we come to the film. As an antidote to what Haneke calls "American Barrel Down cinema and its disempowerment of the spectator", The Tribe in this case, unquestionably succeeds.
But it's hardly enjoyable. Its rather nihilistic storyline concerns Serhiy (Fesenko) a teenager who arrives at an urban boarding school and is at once initiated by the incumbent gang - a troupe who ostensibly run the joint - into selling drugs, terrorising the locals, and, eventually, once an artic lorry runs him over, taking over from a colleague on pimping duties, and it's here where things start to get complicated. It's Interning For Mafiose 101 that you don't mess with the merch, but Serihy develops something of an obsession for Anya (Novikova), one of the two boarding girls employed to service truckers at the local lorry-park. How Anya and her friend (or at any rate - roommate) Svetka (Babiy) fell into this grimy servitude at the hands of their male peers remains largely unexplored, but their apparent delight at being relocated/trafficked to Italy suggests that they believe in a better life beyond Ukraine. Interestingly, it is outside the Italian embassy, where Anya and Svetka are filling in their passport papers at the behest of their handlers, that we hear our first voices, and even then, the queuing throng produces an indistinct conversational hum. As two state officers patrol the line, seemingly oblivious to the men berating the young women for filling in their forms incorrectly, Slaboshpytskiy's message seems to be that even those who can speak aren't necessarily worth listening to.
All of which builds to a shocking and merciless conclusion, which at first seems unbelievable... until you take in the characters' disability, the thing that's been yelled at you for the preceding two hours. Slaboshpytskiy goes for the gut, but ends up with a far more tragic aftertaste. Whatever his political motivations, The Tribe's central themes of an alienated youth with untrammelled appetite for violence and exploitation, paints a desolate picture of a generation that's often looked upon as being able to heal the wounds of their forefathers. The message is that in order to hear, we must first be prepared to listen.