Heading into the Independent Film Festival of Boston’s screening of the Ukrainian drama The Tribe this past weekend I was prepared to have any number of reactions. for many things. Previous audiences described the viewing experience as a grind, with the nihilistic outlook of the film sapping the viewers of all energy. Our own Dede, whose tolerance for depravity on film is unmatched by anyone else I know, described it as one of the most difficult films she has ever sat through. Other audience members discussed feeling nauseous before the final brutal moments of The Tribe even begin. I expected to walk out of the theater devastated by the experience. Yet while The Tribe contains some of the most harrowing moments one can experience in recent cinema, the ultra violent nature of the film goes so far over the top that I enjoyed it as black comedy. Although it is a much more grounded work, at times the levels of violence brought to mind the fetishistic violence found in modern asian cinema in works like Oldboy or I Saw The Devil.
After a teen boy arrives at a boarding school for the deaf he finds himself targeted by the band of bullies that run the school system despite his best efforts to fit in. After proving his toughness in a schoolyard fight, he is initiated into the pseudo mafia that runs the school. The band of young criminals engage in everything from petty theft and racketeering to vicious acts of assault and battery employed to rob the locals of their cash and goods. However the real money comes from prostituting a pair of willing and able female classmates. Each night the two girls head out with their pimp to the local truck stop, banging on the windshield of each parked vehicle until deals can be struck and flesh can be sold (or at least rented).
After an accident involving backing up 18 wheeler kills the games primary pimp, our new student finds himself enlisted in the role. As he becomes enamored with the young blonde prostitute he finds himself both her pimp and one one of her johns. When his growing obsession with the young woman starts costing the operation money, he soon finds himself on the outs.
The Tribe boasts the conceit of containing no spoken dialogue or subtitles. Set in a boarding school for deaf children, the film uses sign language as its mode of communication between its players. The cast is comprised solely of hearing impaired persons. While the gimmick-and it’s difficult not to think of director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s decision as anything else- is notable, it fails to add depth to the core group of characters. However, where the film does shine is in Slaboshpitsky’s bold choices in shot composition. The barren world these teens live in suggests that the country still suffers the lingering effects of communist rule. With the slate colored walls and iron bars that cover doorways, the school resembles a prison more so than it does an educational facility. The students’ deafness is a fact of life, but of greater hindrance is the lack of options that exist in an economically downtrodden country. Miroslav shoots each scene as one extended take. His camera follows the students down corridors, around hallway bens, through the gaps between parked trucks and through the shady streets surrounding the school. This stylistic choice lends the film a street level, almost documentary feel.
Perhaps that’s why despite the depths the students sink to, the film never feels exploitative. Even the two young women that turn to prostitution never seem all that bothered by their choices, and often seem to embrace the job. They enjoy the trinkets and cheap gifts they receive from a school administrator, they look forward to their nightly rituals at the truck park, and they banter playfully with one another as they change from school outfits to their working girl clothes in the back of the moving van. It’s not until the new student begins to obsess with one of the girls that their problems begin. In fact, until the emergence of a horrifying, nauseating backroom abortion scene, the film plays more like a triumphant mafia film than dramatic tragedy. Despite the evil machinations of the leader of the student gang, I often found myself rooting for the kids or laughing out loud (to the horror of other theatergoers) as the violence escalated with each passing scene.
That’s not to suggest The Tribe will be an easy watch for most people. The last ten minutes of the film contain a number of shocks to the system and the reality is, this film is gritty and dark in ways no American film, whether its indie or mainstream, would ever dream of approaching. The film presents a number of challenges to the viewer, from the dizzying attempts at following along with the action when there’s no dialog to assist, to levels of depravity made all the more revolting due to the age and handicap of the perpetrators. The Tribe is tough, but ultimately rewarding film to get through.