RiverRun International Film Festival
Like Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s “The Tribe” amounts to so much more than its novel logline. The film centers around deaf students who speak in sign language, but the audience receives no subtitles to discern their exact words. And since the film is from Ukraine, most trying to lip-read for meaning do so in vain.
With all due respect to masters like Hitchcock or Haneke, I do not think I have ever been more aware of my position as voyeuristic spectator than I was watching “The Tribe.” Slaboshpytskiy grants us a layer of sensory detail unavailable to the characters, yet I still had to work twice as hard as them to make sense of what was occurring before my eyes.
The active participation I had to exert in order to understand character and story ought to serve as a potent rebuttal to Susan Sontag’s claim that film is a “fascist form,” guiding the viewer towards fixed systems of meaning. Here, Slaboshpytskiy rarely moves the camera unless a character is walking, never cuts unless the scene changes, and always keep the camera at a safe, long shot distance from the action. His aesthetic matches the nature of “The Tribe” perfectly, ensuring there is no passive way to consume this film.
Any reading of the film must involve a complicated matrix of body language interpretation, situational analysis, and empathetic intuition. That is not to say, however, that the plot and events themselves are impenetrable or impossible to decipher; in fact, quite the opposite is true. Everything occurs in a fairly straightforward fashion in “The Tribe,” even if it requires a little bit of time for the reality to settle. The process of arriving to such an awareness provides the real thrill.
Even for those less inclined to view the film in theoretical components, “The Tribe” still packs a punch with its gut-wrenching story. The film begins with a new arrival to the school, the very green Sergey (Grygoriy Fesenko), and his quick incorporation into the organized system of crime, robbery, and prostitution run there. Sergey’s crossing from naïveté to aggressiveness plays like a warped take on the gangster film, but the transformation occurs so slowly and carefully that the changes only register in retrospect.
His journey to the dark side leads “The Tribe” into some sketchy, scary corners of Kiev that illuminate some of the most violent corners of the soul. At times, Slaboshpytskiy does indulge in sensational excesses with his presentation of deeply unsettling acts, although the choices do seem mostly justified. In a film that requires an extreme reorientation of our relationship to the action on screen, content anything less than an extreme would probably feel disappointing. A- /