You don’t wanna be in their gang...
Whichever way you cut it, writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s debut is a tough watch, and not just for the reasons explained by its stark opening caption: it’s set at a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf, starring amateur actors speaking only in sign language, and it contains no subtitles, voiceover or music, unfolding instead in muddy muteness, the purest example of pure cinema.
Followed from his first day, new pupil Sergei (Grigoriy Fesenko) is inducted into an institution that’s little more than a purgatorial prison. Teachers are nowhere to be seen and the eponymous tribe rule the roost like gangsters, robbing, bullying and beating all comers while prostituting female pupils to local truckers. Sergei has little choice but to join in and we have no choice but to watch, Valentyn Vasyanovych’s lingering camera making the audience complicit in the horrors that unfold.
Even without conventional dialogue, following what happens is relatively easy; it’s mainly sex, violence or sexualised violence, none of which requires much exposition. But it also removes all shadings of character and motive, and watching children abusing each other in the name of – what, survival? – for 132 minutes takes a traumatic toll.
For all his formal daring, is Slaboshpitsky simply trying to break the viewer, like the system will surely break Sergei? One protracted scene shows apparently underage teens having barely consensual sex, and must have given the BBFC sleepless nights, and another shows a real-time abortion but another is just 10 minutes of people queuing.
Whether he’s a boundary-breaking Larry Clark or the new Michael Haneke, daring us to look away, Slaboshpitsky has made a singular and singularly shocking film. You’ll want to bathe your eyeballs afterwards but The Tribe does something that’s never been attempted before – and probably never will be again.