PRINT Summer 2015


Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, The Tribe, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 132 minutes. Svetka (Roza Babiy), Anya (Yana Novikova), and King (Olexandr Osadchyi).

THE ENTOURAGE of sponsors swanning in tenue de soirée into the Miramar cinema at last year’s Cannes Film Festival to attend the awards screening of Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe—the young Ukrainian director’s debut feature had just taken three major prizes in the Critics’ Week sidebar—were doubtless unprepared for the film’s violent and innovative nature. The initial shock of encountering a work made entirely in sign language without subtitles or voice-over, coupled with the film’s escalating brutality and explicit sex, quickly prompted audible unease among the benefactors and more than one seat-vaulting exodus. If Slaboshpytskiy had set out to épater la bourgeoisie, the panic provided a crowning Cannes triumph for his pitiless vision.

Closer to Salò (1975) than to Johnny Belinda (1948)—the film proffers a relentless parade of youthful bodies being pummeled, crushed, or defiled—The Tribe begins as a study in orientation, the camera parked across the street from a Kiev trolleybus stop where the young protagonist, Sergey, alights and, using gestures and a notepad, asks directions to a nearby boarding school for the deaf. Announcing the film’s visual strategy, in which stationary plans-séquences alternate with Steadicam long takes, braced immobility with fluid movement, the camera now follows Sergey in real time as he makes his way to the institute, up flights of stairs, in a single unedited take. This “trudge shot,” a familiar stylistic trope from the school of Slow Cinema, is reiterated in the murderous expedition with which the film ends: In each case, Sergey’s protracted ascent ironically delivers him into hell.

After witnessing a school assembly, which cameraman and editor Valentyn Vasyanovych incorporates into that one continuous, virtuosic shot, Sergey is soon inducted into the eponymous clan of petty criminals, oddly reminiscent in their ashen skin and mop-top haircuts of the teddy boys in Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1963). (Losey’s natty gang leader, played by Oliver Reed, is called King, and, as we learn when the final credits of The Tribe roll, one of the commanders here is also identified as King.) Having survived hazing, Sergey proves to the tribe his delinquent abilities, helping to stalk and attack a man on the way home from the supermarket, and finally graduating to the role of pimp-protector for two teenage schoolmates, Anya and Svetka, who service truck drivers at a nocturnal rest stop. When he falls in love with Anya, who later undergoes a back-street abortion—shot in excruciating detail and one uninterrupted take, the Steadicam calmly traversing the squalid home of the hatchet-faced provider as she heats her instruments and forces Anya’s legs open with homemade stirrups—Sergey desperately attempts to prevent her departure for Italy. (Anya is being trafficked as a sex slave, but naively treats the trip as if it were an escape.)

Slaboshpytskiy and Vasyanovych work with great deliberation—the film is all symmetries and signposts—constructing each sequence with oppressive precision. For instance, around the eighty-minute mark, the static camera leaves us outside a cinder-block building, peering into the windows, obscured by sunburst security grilles, of two adjacent rooms as Anya and Svetka are simultaneously questioned and photographed by state officials. Only later can we confirm that the women are applying for passports, and the sequence impresses more for its meticulously balanced split-screen effect than for its momentary narrative mystery. By turns roving and peering, or hunkered down to stare, Vasyanovych’s implacable camera captures Sergey’s increasingly anarchic world, as the proficient adults at the film’s beginning—an imperious school principal and a brusque history teacher—disappear, to be replaced by a thuggish shop instructor who, aided by a bureaucratic-looking cohort, prostitutes the two girls. (The obdurate visual style sometimes produces problems; it cannot hide the fact that in each of the film’s candid sex scenes, Sergey penetrates Anya sans hard-on.)

The Tribe obviously does not intend to re-create the experience of the deaf, emphasizing as it does the profusion and physicality of sound—of a fist landing on ribs, a shower of coins spilling onto a tiled toilet floor, the jagged panting of a woman inspecting her pregnancy test, the rattle of instruments in the abortionist’s metal tray, a mass of sandpaper and rasps working against wood in a shop class, the blunt thud of a nightstand as it cracks open a cranium—which the film’s characters, all acted by deaf nonprofessionals, cannot hear. Their aural isolation is registered most dire when the teen capo of the prostitution crew fails to hear the warning signal of a lorry, which flattens him beneath its wheels, and in the film’s finale, when a lethal beating occurring in a nearby bed fails to awaken the killer’s next victim. (The Tribe’s resolutely anti-Romantic treatment of the deaf has been both hailed as bold and original and vilified as exploitative Eastern European miserabilism accoutered with a gimmick.)

Given historical events in Ukraine subsequent to the filming of The Tribe, it is tempting to read the early sequence of a teacher discussing the European Union with her students as a portent, and to find in the school’s abusive world a microcosm of a failed state, with its corrupt leaders and cowering underlings. But political allegory seems alien to Slaboshpytskiy’s concerns. If his formidable film protests at all, it is against the malign nature of humanity, quick to submit, eager to subdue.

The Tribe opens June 17 at Film Forum in New York and June 26 at Cinefamily in Los Angeles.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.