Slaboshpitsky's "The Tribe" Is a One of A Kind Movie That Is Just Short of Compelling

The Tribe, from writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, is one of those rare films that can truly claim to be one of a kind. Set in a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf teenagers, the characters use only sign language, and Slaboshpitsky provides no subtitles; the audience is left to piece the plot together using only the characters’ gestures and expressions as clues. It’s a distinctive style of storytelling, and more than a little daunting - even The Artist had more dialogue, and that was a silent film. 

Initially, it makes for a fascinating watch. Events can have any number of meanings, of course, and the film thrives on ambiguity. Is the school helping pupils or hiding them? Why are the boys strip-searching each other? Being so deprived of sound, your senses become more attuned to other details, and the bewilderment of new student Sergey is easy to empathise with. 

It isn’t long before the effect wears thin, however. As the film’s lengthy, Steadicam-shot scenes unfurl, the viewer is pushed further and further away. Slaboshpitsky is unconcerned with accommodating his audience and leaves us little to cling on to; around the halfway mark, it starts to feel less like a mystery to pick apart and more like something to be endured. The restlessness in the screening I attended was palpable. 

‘Gimmicks’ can, of course, provide exhilarating cinema - think The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby using separate His and Hers films to examine a marriage, or Boyhood filming the same cast over 12 years. The reason those gimmicks worked was because they co-existed with stunning stories, using form to complement substance. In contrast, The Tribe’s story is not enriched but instead muddled by its method of delivery, and the gimmick soon loses its novelty. 

Even when Slaboshpitsky ramps the shock factor right up, it isn’t enough to make the film truly compellingThe story itself is fairly rote, revolving around Sergey as he is pulled into the students’ chaotic lives of alcohol, prostitution and petty crime. It’s difficult to determine what sort of world they inhabit - adult characters essentially disappear after twenty minutes, giving the impression that the students are ruling over some inexplicably-depraved dystopia. There is little sense of how this environment came to exist, or how it relates to the outside world; the characters are simply cut off, both from society and from the audience.

The ever-increasing amounts of violence and sex might not be gratuitous per se, but they do feel like an effort to sustain audience interest in an otherwise trudging film. Slaboshpitsky’s disconnected style means that all we can really know of the characters are their basic traits. There’s the innocent newcomer, the troublemaker, the tart with a heart. However, being more-or-less excluded from their interactions means that it is rarely possible to see beyond these archetypes. The chillingly gruesome climax offers more in the way of character development, but it is too much too late. Even when Slaboshpitsky ramps the shock factor right up, it isn’t enough to make the film truly compelling. 

This is a shame, since The Tribe has plenty of (excuse the pun) sound ideas. If it could have found a way to examine its disconnected characters without becoming so disconnecting itself, it could have been a real landmark. Instead, it feels like a missed opportunity - a film that is easy to admire, but impossible to love. 

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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