What makes a film “brave”? Is it telling a type of story that hasn’t been told before? Is it doing something innovative technically? By either definition, The Tribe is brave film-making.
The feature debut of Ukrainian writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, it takes place in a time and place where sound is, by and large, irrelevant, and features “No translation, no subtitles, no voice-over”, only sign language. Our de facto protagonist is Serhiy (Grygoriy Fesenko, a non-actor like the rest of the cast), a deaf mute who arrives at a borstal-like boarding school for the deaf — a dilapidated pairing of red brick and green tile hidden away in the woods as if out of shame.
Shot in a series of distant tracking shots, Slaboshpytskiy takes us through a world where communication itself is a physical act, all ritual and gesture. Initially an outsider, Serhiy takes his licks — the juvenile equivalent of the Oldboy hallway fight — and finds himself part of an obscure criminal organization. Serhiy brings a subdued uncertainty and the jawline of Jack O’Connell; a sensitivity that justifies his quickly developed relationship with one of his stable as pimp, Anya (Yana Novikova).
The Tribe is less about belonging than making a connection, usually physical, from Serhiy and Anya’s first awkward clinch in a boiler room to the gang’s various acts of violence on hapless civilians — following one home from the shops they swoop down upon him, waylaying him with a length of pipe. There’s nothing to do but drink, rob, and whore, but it feels perfunctory, just bored kids brutally playing dress-up in a desolate world — the abandoned swing ride might as well be at Chernobyl.
Slaboshpytskiy’s camera keeps us at a remote distance, as if from the other side of the street (once literally). There’s no incidental music, but this is not a world without sound: failing to hear it reversing, one enforcer disappears horrifically under the back of a lorry as if pulled. Like a mute, adolescent remake of Mona Lisa by the Dardennes Brothers, The Tribe is steeped in quiet desperation and degradation; a minutes-long shot stays on two exploited teenage girls “tarting up” in the back of a van.
The film takes its time, telling a relatively simple story over 130 minutes. As much about context as character, The Tribe‘s “braveness” lies in its approach as much as in its topic. The two are part and parcel.