Over the years, many first-time directors have caused a raucous at the London Film Festival. But with The Tribe, his extraordinary debut feature, Ukrainian filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy is likely to make more noise than any of them. Starring an all deaf cast who communicate through sign language, with no subtitles to aid the audience, Slaboshpytskiy’s film boldly seeks to defy cinematic convention and challenge people’s natural perceptions. Crawling under your skin from the very start, it’s visually audacious and utterly compelling.
Just like a magician who swings his watch in front of your face, Slaboshpytskiy has you hypnotised before you even realise. Playing out his film as a series of lengthy takes that are shot with cold, methodical precision by DoP Valentyn Vasyanovych, he ensconces his audience in a nightmarish and devastating reality. Blending Lord of the Flies with Mean Streets, the writer/director draws on a number of prepubescent themes to form a efficacious expose of lost adolescence.
We first meet young Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) on his first day at a new boarding school that caters solely for deaf students. When he arrives, his uncomfortable body language suggests an impressionable personality, which makes him an easy target for the vicious hoodlums who rule the school. Pulled in to their viscous world of organised crime, Sergey soon finds himself committing violent muggings during the day, and acting as pimp for two of the school’s female students by night. However, as he becomes more infatuated with Anna (Yana Novikova), one of the girls he pimps out, Sergey soon finds himself treading far more dangerous waters.
Displaying a creative professionalism far beyond what you would expect for a first-time filmmaker, Slaboshpytskiy submerges his audience within an unforgivably bleak world that’s hard to watch, but impossible to look away from. The school, with its graffiti covered outer walls surrounding an inner sanctum of coldly lit corridors that are adjoined by doors covered in bars, has more in common with a jail than a school. And the children act as inmates, but ones who terrifyingly have the freedom to leave and commit whatever atrocities they wish whenever they want.
It is through his characters that Slaboshpytskiy masterfully pulls the rug out from under his audience. Fiercely challenging our innate perceptions of those who are deaf, he reveals the youngsters who inhabit his world to be a pack of savagely aggressive animals. And yet, because of their juvenile age, there’s still a fundamental degree of ambivalence towards them. None of them are carved out as monstrous caricatures; they all have weaknesses that make them human beings. We never like them, we even hate them at times, but when we see them suffer, it’s impossible not to pity them.
Holding your gaze throughout are the superb performances of the unknown cast, all of whom intrinsically utilise a wealth of expressions, actions, and complex emotions to illustrate their character’s stories. When we first see Sergey, he appears sheepish. But, as he becomes further embroiled in this felonious life, he slowly changes, turning into someone we could never initially imagine he could be. Using only physical expression, Fesenko vividly embodies these inner changes and subtly exposes them on the screen.
Treating the audience as passive observers, Slaboshpytskiy forces them to sit through both brutally violent and intensely sexual scenes that push the boundaries of conventional cinema in deeply affecting ways. Soon enough he has our emotions pulled taut and proceeds to toy with them as if he’s a puppet master. As the dangers of Sergey’s putrid way of life gather at the surface, the writhing pressure becomes almost suffocating. When it all implodes, as it inevitably does, it’s almost impossible to comprehend, but even harder to stop thinking about.
Managing to communicate all of this with nary a word spoken is Slaboshpytskiy’s masterstroke. In doing so he has succeeded in breaking the boundaries of visual dialogue, revealing a brave new cinematic direction that begs to be explored. As with every year, there are plenty of films screaming for your attention at the London Film Festival, but, through its silence, The Tribe shouts louder than any of them.