A warning to anyone thinking of seeing this film: this film is a challenge. Indeed, the film starts out with a disclaimer that there is no translation and no subtitles. In fact, the entire film is conducted via Ukrainian Sign Language, and it is left up to the viewer to interpret to the best of his or her ability the happenings on screen. While this is an exciting experiment on film – it may be the first of its kind – the results are decidedly mixed and this quote (courtesy of Iyanla Vanzant) came to mind immediately upon the rolling of the credits following its screening at the Sundance Film Festival: “If you see crazy coming, cross the street!”
The film follows a new student at a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf, who adapts to survive among The Tribe – a group of ruthless students that resort to bullying, pimping/prostitution, abortion, rape, and murder to climb to the top in their rotten Lord of the Flies environment. This film isn’t for the faint of heart, and it features some of the most horrific violence ever seen on film.
One of the challenges of viewing this film is most basic: the characters don’t have names. (In fact, the film’s IMDb listing doesn’t even list names for the characters). As a result, the audience is left to rely only on facial recognition of the actors to follow the story. Now, this isn’t a huge inconvenience – it isn’t even necessary – but the film’s multiple challenges culminate for the viewer and become overwhelming.
One of the most fascinating features of this film is the juxtaposition of various veneers of innocence and order with true underlying cores of deviance and chaos. From the outside, the boarding school seems like a perfectly fine and appropriate educational establishment, with order, supervision, and learning made a priority. But when class ends, the corridors transform into frightening witnesses of unsupervised deviancy – sometimes aided by the teachers themselves. This contrast is no more effective then when the children congregate in an old, decrepit playground after a night of violent assault and proceed to play on the swings and ride the carousel. It’s haunting, to say the least.
Another of the film’s strengths is the cinematography by Valentyn Vasyanovych, a freshman in that arena. His framing and lighting are top notch, symmetrical and static, and bring to mind the cinematography of last year’s Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic To Kill a Man. The lack of a score was also a good choice and contributes to the film’s violent realism, inspiring real terror and dread.
One interesting result of the experiment that is this film is that lost with the lack of dialogue and subtitles is any sense of subtlety or nuance that could inspire sympathy with any of the characters or justify their actions. What we see is the most bare of human emotions and experiences on display: humans as animals, with sex and violence playing a prominent role in the food chain – even in a boarding school of youth. It’s a terrifying reminder of what we are all capable of if pushed too far.
The Tribe is screening at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the Spotlight Category, a non-competition category that showcases films that are “a tribute to the cinema we love.”
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Image Source: Sundance Institute