On paper, "The Tribe" sounds almost like someone's idea for a parody of arthouse cinema: a story set at a corrupt Ukrainian boarding school for deaf teenagers, acted out with no translation, no subtitles, no music, and no voiceover. It sounds unbelievably artsy and affected, and while it makes for an undeniably challenging watch, the film is far from dull.
Director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky dumps us headlong into this often bewildering environment and without any sort of compass to navigate this world, we're forced to really work in order to process what's happening. The experience requires the sort of intense alertness that one isn't used to maintaining over the course of an entire movie.
We see everything through the eyes of a new student, Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), as he arrives and immediately gets sucked into the school's brutal way of life. The school is a front for all manner of criminal activity carried out by a gang of boys who appear to operate at the behest of a couple of Fagin-esque teachers. The boys rule over the school, intimidating younger students into thievery, and earning their own income by pimping out two of their indifferent female classmates at a local truck stop. Sergey is indoctrinated into the gang, working his way up in the pecking order with unnerving speed, but hitting a snag when he falls in love with one of the exploited girls (Yana Novikova).
Filmed with nonprofessional young performers who are themselves deaf, each scene of the film takes the form of a single unbroken take, captured through stunningly graceful camerawork by Valentyn Vasyanovych (also the film's editor). It's formally daring and astonishingly ambitious, even more so considering this is Slaboshpitsky's first feature.
Throwing the audience into this world without any way to orient ourselves is an effective way for Slaboshpitsky to recreate the isolation and disorientation a deaf person may feel in the hearing world. It's a powerful empathetic tool, though here it does little to counteract the horrifying behavior on display, so it's a little mystifying why the director decided this particularly bleak and brutal story was the one he wanted to tell with it. Perhaps it comes from a simple desire to counteract the saint-like depiction of the differently abled we tend to find in the majority of popular culture. But whatever the reason, Slaboshpitsky is at times too clearly out to shock us, and the increasing brutalization of the film's characters becomes difficult to watch -- the violence somehow rendered all the more disturbing by the relative silence that blankets it. Grim and disturbing, "The Tribe" is bound to polarize audiences. But through all its savagery, the audacity of the filmmaker's vision is absolutely riveting.