After over a century of cinema, I can forgive the contemporary film world for not always mustering up something original. Films edited to look like they were one single shot? Done before. Films that deliberately take years and years to make? Done before. Very little is actually original and, more specifically, very little is truly innovative. In Ukraine, though, they’ve managed it. They’ve bloody managed it.
On the surface, The Tribe has an interesting but unoriginal narrative. A young teenager joins a new boarding school, where he is clearly the outcast. The only way to survive this new environment is to become part of The Tribe, a harsh organisation that thrives on violence, intimidation and exploitation. He manages to become a cog in its machine, but loyalties shift when he falls in love with one of the members.
So here’s where the originality comes in: the entire film is in sign language. All of it. Not a single word is spoken throughout, and there are no subtitles or dubbing to help. What filmmaker Mirsolav Slaboshpitsky has done is challenge the audience to watch a movie they won’t understand, and the result is a fantastic viewing experience. It takes a little while to settle into this strange experience but, once you do, it’s entrancing. Unable to rely on dialogue, character development comes from body language and physical activity. Even the manner in which a characters signs is pivotal.
Not having a complete understanding of what was going on also forces the audience to make their own minds up? The loyalties of certain characters remain ambiguous, as do the fate of others – our hero’s love interest is getting taken to Italy. Is she being trafficked? It’s difficult to tell, and I won’t ever know. I’m imagining my own film whilst I watch this pantomime of sorts unfold in front of me.
What really intrigues me about this innovative concept is that, narratively, I don’t know if this is a good film. I love that the entire film is in sign language, and thoroughly enjoyed that aspect of it. But was the acting good? Was it a good script? Had there been words, would this film be as entertaining? These are all questions I won’t know the answer to, and that fascinates me.
Above all, though, what this excellent concept does is put you in the shoes of the people who suffer from deafness, living in a world where they cannot understand what someone is saying, and have to rely solely on gestures and body language. So to turn that upside down is incredible, and Slaboshpitsky should be applauded for this bold approach to filmmaking.
The Tribe is not an easy watch. Gratuitous violence, graphic sex and nudity (and all three in one particularly difficult scene with the lead girl) appear regularly through the film, and there are constant reminders that these are just children, probably no older than fifteen or sixteen. But this is all part of the appeal of the movie for me. None of it is an easy watch. I’m seeing these awful things take place on screen, having a strong effect on me, enhanced by the fact that I can’t make entire sense of it.
So yeah, you might have difficulty understanding it. But don’t let that stop you from watching this extremely innovative movie. I‘ve never seen a movie like this before, and I don’t think I will again.