It could be said that like the elongated motorway sequence in Solaris (1972), supposedly included to alienate audiences unworthy of an Andrei Tarkovsky film, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky offers a similar manoeuvre by warning us both in the trailer and at the film’s inception that The Tribe will include no subtitles, voice-over or any other explanation of the sign-language used by the film’s population of deaf adolescents and their teachers. But as the film progresses, and as the hearing audience becomes accustomed to watching signing, this apparent warning, constraint or gimmick fades away and what we find is that the film constitutes a liberation from spoken and written language, one which is firstly disorientating but as time passes becomes necessary.
The Tribe places the hearing audience in the shoes of the deaf, a role-reversal which communicates the difficulty of living with sensory deprivation. It is the hearing audience that now struggles to comprehend both the language of ordinary life, bewildered and alienated by the rapid signing and physical complexity of the film’s characters, and the language of cinema, which since the end of silent cinema has been mostly an all seeing and hearing affair. To ask for subtitles, for an explanation of this foreign world, would be unfair and selfish of the hearing audience, offensive to those who live their lives separated from the untranslated language of everyday speech. Yet if this is a film for the deaf, it is only for those who are accustomed to Russian sign language – the 120,000 native speakers across Eastern Europe and Asia – and not for the whole international deaf community. (I have been told that non-Russian sign language users will find some of the signs familiar, however, I am yet to verify the veracity of this). It is therefore a film for two distinct audiences, and as I am unable to understand Russian sign-language, I can only talk about The Tribe from my own perspective.
The Tribe is a film which makes the noises that we commonly ignore, audible in the world of the deaf. Footsteps, closing doors, the rustling of leaves – sounds inaudible to the students of the school – are emphasised, no longer taken for granted. So are the short gasps of frustration or pleasure, sparsely expressed by the film’s protagonists. Although alienated from the conversations and psychology of the film’s characters, we soon come to appreciate our ability to hear, and as the film progresses towards its brutal conclusion, we learn how our survival sometimes relies on it. The bullies of the film use their disadvantage to their advantage, sneaking up on their targets, knowing a cry for help will remain unheard, that their crimes will stay undiscovered. As we watch the considerable cruelty reaped on members of the student body, we hope that one will hear, wake up and escape the ultra-violence bestowed by a confused, hormonal student seeking revenge.
Although it may seem as if I have suggested that the entire spectrum of communication between the film’s characters is incomprehensible to the hearing audience, this is the not the case. We are forced to focus our attention on body language, gesture and physical actions, to read between the lines and identify expressions and certain hand signals which appear familiar or are used repetitively. The signs for you, me and money seem obvious, and as the film progresses we begin to understand how emotion, anger and love are represented through the hands of the students. Frenetic signing is contrasted with slower, leisurely symbols, jokes are represented, as are the cheeky and mischievous actions of the class clown during what appears to be a history or geography lesson. In some scenes, the image is inundated with multiple overlapping conservations which to the trained eye must appear bewildering and overwhelming. Like the rabble of a crowd, inaudible to our ears, such signing en masse must be equally obscuring. The question of secrecy returned throughout my experience of the film: if all language is on show, how does one whisper and hide information out in the open? Indeed, we become so accustomed to following body language throughout the film, that when there is the opportunity for audible speech – the crowd lined up outside the Italian embassy for example – Slaboshpitsky appropriately ignores it, the sparring, overlapping din left inaudible, unsubtitled, overlooked.
Throughout the film, we remain not only entertained by body language, gesture and the abundance of violence and sex but the aesthetics of the film. The camerawork (courtesy of director of photography, Valentyn Vasyanovych, and Steadican operators Vitaly Kovgan and Sergiy Blinov) is mesmerising and dizzying, jumping from static to rollercoaster movements, appearing to slide down hills in pursuit of the characters, before collapsing, worn out by the frenetic actions of the students. Here we have the visual language of cinema used to a tremendous extent. Throughout the film, I was reminded of the digitally stitched long takes of Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015) which once appeared spectacular and fantastic in their apparent seamlessness, now dishonest and unappealing in comparison.
Impossible to describe as condescending or patronising to the disabled, The Tribe in its brutality and ability to shock, is one of the most powerful, disturbing and successful films I have seen this year. Left flinching by its unpleasant conclusion, I left the cinema stunned, weighing up the beauty of its aesthetics with the ugliness of its content, thoroughly convinced that it is a film like no other, and one which will undoubtedly have a completely different meaning to its other audience. For now, I await a review by someone who understands the lengthy exchanges and conversations of the film’s characters, to place myself in their shoes and see from their perspective.