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'The Tribe' Is the Best Ukrainian Sign Language Movie So Far This Year

All the dialogue is in sign language, with no subtitles provided.

Michael Nordine

Although it may sound like a warning to start off by saying The Tribe is told entirely in untranslated Ukrainian sign language, it's more of an invitation. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's latest film is about a new student named Sergey's initiation into the gang that runs his boarding school for the deaf. The feature is a study of brutal power dynamics with graceful camera movements and blunt depiction of sexual and violent behavior.

This is the writer-director's first feature, and none of his four preceding short films garnered anywhere near the level of attention being lavished on The Tribe. It helps that the attention-grabbing sign language setup is more than a gimmick—it's an exercise in both watching and listening to a movie in a new way. But it's also a double-edged sword that could draw in as many viewers as it turns away.

It will be interesting to see whether the people who consider reading subtitles "work" find this less difficult or more. It's enough to make you reconsider the overused screenwriting guide idea that all dialogue is a failure of visual storytelling. In stripping away our inability to understand the dialogue, Slaboshpitsky underscores the primal nature of his Lord of the Flies–like characters. His approach is almost anthropological, like a field guide to understanding the extremes of human behavior that manifest in a closed environment.

The movie begins with the start of the school year, as faculty members and administrators lead a school-wide ceremony in a peaceful courtyard. Sergey meets the tribe shortly thereafter. The tribe's ruffians (all of whom are actually deaf—Slaboshpitsky cast nonprofessional actors) subsist on the lunch money of weaker students, stolen drugs, and the bodies of two female members. Complications arise when, after one of the pimps gets flattened by a truck and Sergey takes his place, the newcomer falls in love with an escort. She seems to be a willing participant in the selling of her body, but like most characters in The Tribe, she has little agency beyond her limited, predefined role. Power comes to those who take it by force, with everyone else left to take orders. Attempts to upend the established order can only be resolved in one way.

Slaboshpitsky is a great observer, but he's also an agitator. He ramps up tension gradually, never letting go of the feeling that something is fundamentally off. The action plays out with utmost nonchalance. No one questions the goings on, and the few adults who actually appear onscreen are either ignorant as to what's transpiring after class or actively involved in it. Valentin Vasyanovych has shot and edited the film with such impressive clarity that it's never difficult to understand what's actually happening. There's a cold lucidity to the group's increasingly out-there antics.

In its way, this is also the art-house answer to Gravity: The film is more active experience than a passive entertainment, with long, fluid takes filling in for the intentionally sparse narrative. Thinking of The Tribe days and even weeks after seeing it, the fact that it's all but silent barely even registers. It doesn't sit in the memory much differently from most "normal" films, which is a testament to how impressively crafted it is. Vasyanovych's work allows the story's beats to sink in, same with the place of each character within this makeshift hierarchy.

This isn't the only Ukrainian film to make waves on the festival circuit lately—Sergei Loznitsa's Maidan is a vital artifact to anyone seeking a ground-level, experiential take on his country's current civil unrest—but The Tribe is certainly the most flashy. The cinema of Ukraine has rarely received as much notice as nearby Poland and Russia, though these two auteurs suggest it may be on an upswing.

The Tribe premiered last year at Cannes (where it won several awards) and has since played the Locarno, Toronto, and AFI film festivals, in addition to its recent stop in Palm Springs, where it was showcased despite somehow not being Ukraine's official submission for the Academy Awards.

It was unlikely to have been nominated anyway, what with its grim subject matter and Oscar voters' tendency to reward foreign fare that closely hews to prestige-picture conventions. (To be fair, they did nominate Dogtooth, a similarly outré curio whose cult following will likely flock to this as well.) The Tribe is soon to receive a theatrical release courtesy of Drafthouse Films, those Austin-based purveyors of a great many other midnight-movies-in-waiting.

The film may be too disturbing and too hesitant to pass judgements on its characters to gain more than a self-selecting audience, but it will thrive among that niche. This is due in no small part to the eruption of violence that caps things off, which arrives with a sort of resigned inevitability. The climactic brutality is an exclamation mark at the end of a long sentence, whose lack of punctuation up to that point made it all the more thrilling. The Tribe remains a uniquely riveting experience sure to inspire an array of reactions—speechlessness included.