Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: The Tribe's sound of silence

Sometimes, taking big risks pays off. It takes some guts to make a 130 minute film told entirely in (Ukranian) sign language without translation, subtitles, captions or music. The challenge must be all the more daunting for a filmmaker tackling the first feature of his career. Yet that is precisely what the Ukranian director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky has chosen to do and now he is reaping the rewards for the extraordinary his debut The Tribe. Contrary to what you might expect, there are no signs of pretentiousness or boredom to be found. The plot and the emotions always reign supreme over the sign language (high-)concept.

The story takes place in a specialized boarding school ruled by a criminal organisation called "the tribe". Together, the members prowl the streets of Kiev, violently rob passers-by and "sell" two extremely young women to lonely truckers. Everybody knows their place in the strict hierarchy of the organisation. The audience discovers this grim world through the eyes of Sergey, a newcomer who quickly climbs up the ladder before breaking the tribe's unwritten rules.

The use of deaf mute actors (all of whom deliver extraordinary, physical performances despite, or because of, their lack of experience and training) and sign language makes the film interesting on several levels. First of all, it adds a big bowl of ambiguity to the plot. The entire film is like trying to eavesdrop on an animated conversation across a busy restaurant: you get the gist of it, you can understand their emotions, but the finer details of the conversations are drowned out by background noise and the waiter offering you dessert. Our brains are constantly trying to decipher what is happening, which means that we don't have time to shut them off. The audience has no choice but to keep thinking, which makes us ask questions beyond the plot in itself.

The lack of dialogue also gives us more time to take in the background. Slaboshpitsky keeps his visual style simple, using long takes and few close ups. The picture he paints of Ukraine's capital is dark and gritty. The landscape is lifeless and urban in an intimidating way. The view is always broken by some sort graffiti-covered wall made out of grey concrete, conveying a feeling of entrapment and claustrophobia. Resorting to violence seems like the only logical consequence of life in such a depressing environment (or is it the other way around?). The total isolation of the "thriving" tribe from the rest of society also implies a piercing social criticism about the situation in Ukraine.

Finally, The Tribe also made me think about the nature of communication. Human beings don't really need language to interact or even understand each other. The director made his film as a tribute to the silent cinema of the early twentieth century, but unlike The Artist or Blancanieves he doesn't simply copy the techniques. Instead of using silence in a playful, nostalgic way, he uses it to explore these interesting questions.

While the ending relies too heavily on (admittedly very effective) shock value, The Tribe is a remarkable debut from a brave filmmaker. Most of his gambles pay off brilliantly, which gives his film a rare originality. Several days after watching it, I was still dissecting the imagery and the meaning of it all in my mind.

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