Hailing from Ukraine, The Tribe presents something that, to my knowledge, has never been seen on screen before. A full length work of fiction presented entirely in sign language.
A young man arrives at a deaf boarding school, uncertain of his place in the social hierarchy. He falls in with a crowd that offers some sort of protection and privilege in exchange for participating in their rackets of thievery and prostitution. There are no subtitles and not one spoken word in all 130 minutes of The Tribe‘s running time.
This is a challenging film for many reasons, the most obvious being the lack of understandable language. While the bare basics of what’s going on are usually discernible, details like motivation are all but lost in translation. It doesn’t help that being a Ukranian film, it contains many cultural cues that an American viewer is simply not going to necessarily pick up on.
It’s an intriguing concept to present a film narrative this way, and inasmuch that I understood the plot and characters fairly well despite it being essentially a silent film it is successful. Some things are certainly universal enough that cultural and linguistic barriers do not block their perception. Does this unique way of telling a story go beyond being an interesting gimmick though? In many ways, the answer is no.
Save for a smattering of moments, there is virtually nothing that the story benefits from by featuring hearing impaired actors other than showcasing them as a curiosity. With sound still existing in the film, it doesn’t seem as if the intended audience are those who are deaf themselves, so it does sort of beg the question of why? Like an episode of The Drew Carry Show done in all pig latin, the answer seems to be more of a “because we can” than anything else, which feels a bit exploitative to me.
The film itself, sign language aside, is tremendously difficult to watch mentally, and even physically. Scenes are long and drawn out and seem to feature two types of camerawork – a stationary or slow moving camera showcasing whatever action is occurring at the longest possible distance without completely obscuring what is happening, or a shaky handheld shot following, also at a distance. I suppose this may have been done to ensure all characters’ speech could be seen at once, but we’re so far removed so much of the time, we’re like a Tom peeping through a voyeuristic window into lives of people we don’t ever really get to know. It doesn’t help that most of the characters tend to wear very similar clothing, so from the distances we see them from, they’re often hard to discern from one another.
Difficult also is the dark, cold, subject matter. Violent, disturbing scenes are prolonged, like everything else in this movie. Also prolonged are some rather graphic sex scenes that are terribly uncomfortable, despite the fact that I’m certain some of them are supposed to be, in fact, romantic.
Character motivations and emotions are either starkly non-existent, or so over the top that it feels like the director took his inspiration from mimes rather than actual real deaf people. So much of the story seems to make so little sense as our protagonist seems to offer no resistance whatsoever as he is bounced back and forth from one abusive person to another. He doesn’t seem to grow or develop either. Adults and rules at this school seem to be either completely absent or corrupt. It’s hard to accuse this film of having plot holes when I don’t even understand the dialogue, but I’m sure it is rife with them as so much of its story seems to defy logic.
It’s a dramatic force, to be sure, but not a meaningful one. It’s a cinematic accomplishment as well, and worth examination on that front, and pretty much on that front alone. It’s a strange movie that fails to significantly connect to me, despite the claims of being so utterly human and universal that words are not even needed. It’s jolting, jarring, and mostly unpleasant, but not in the ways that are bound to get you thinking, though it does string you along well enough while it’s got you. I can only hope that in the social context of its home in Ukraine, it means something more, but here, for me, it’s a silent wasteland.
If given the opportunity, however, I would still be curious to see the film once more, with translation. It does posses an element of intrigue that leaves me wondering if there was more to the story than I was able to catch on to. So there’s that.
Mrs. Hamster says:
“I liked the idea that the entire film was in sign language, but I didn’t really ‘get it.'”
My rating: Two out of five hats
Trailer (NSFW nudity warning):
The Tribe is in limited release and signs into the DC area July 10.