Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Tribe

Myroslav Slaboshptskiy's The Tribe (2014) is a film perversely determined to punish the audience for any interest viewers might have in its subject matter.  The Ukrainian director uses long sequence shots as if to dare the viewer to look away.  In effect, the movie is silent because all of its characters communicate by sign language -- there is no music and, indeed, little in the way of Foley effects:  if you saw this thing in a theater, the loudest noise would have been fellow audience members gasping in dismay at some of the images.  The film is resolutely and utterly humorless and the performers, all of them deaf-mutes, are mostly ciphers.  There is a plot of sorts, but it is unrewarding and schematic.  In effect, The Tribe is a crime picture.  A na├»ve-looking young man arrives at a squalid and filthy-looking institution for the deaf.  At first, he is mercilessly hazed by a cadre of five or six thugs, older deaf students who wear black suits and thin ties to class  -- we see only two examples of education at the school; for most of the film, the picture follows the students as they gather in snowy vacant lots to plot their criminal enterprises or shows them abusing one another in the stark and grim co-ed dormitory in which they live.  It turns out that the shop teacher, himself a deaf-mute, is operating a prostitution business using two of the older girls; in this criminal undertaking, he enlists the assistance of the gang of young men who control the dormitory -- they solicit for the girls at a nearby truckstop.  The hero beats up some bigger boys and rises in the ranks of the gang.  When the lead thug gets run over and killed by a truck backing up -- he is smoking a cigarette and, of course, can't hear the vehicle -- the protagonist becomes the leader of the pack.  The boys mug people on trains, peddle trinkets, and help with pimping the two girls, leaping up to slap at semi-cab windows and displaying small hand-written notes as fee schedules to their customers.  In some ways, notwithstanding the film's peculiar and squalid premise, the movie follows the rules of a standard crime movie:  all is well until the hardened hero falls in love with one of the whores.   He, then, objects to her work and flies into a rage when she is solicited by another older and more aggressive pimp to travel to Italy, apparently to ply her trade there.  He seizes her passport, a document that she has laboriously acquired, and fleeing into a room inexplicably filled to the ceiling with paper trash, begins to eat its pages.  The rest of the gang restrains the hero, tortures him for a while and, after smashing a bottle over his head, leaves him for dead in the lavatory.  The lad is not dead, however, and he returns to the dormitory where he wreaks a gruesome revenge on his tormentors.  All of this is filmed at middle distance in two to three minute takes that spare the audience nothing.  There are several explicit sequence-shot sex scenes that follow various forms of intercourse from inception to climax and beyond -- bluntly stated, these scenes are embarrassing:  you feel ashamed for the young and vulnerable deaf actors engaging in the clinically depicted sex acts; there seems to be an element of exploitation.  The torture and beatings are filmed analytically as well, without any cuts, and there is a long single-take abortion scene that presumably had people fleeing for the exits -- an older deaf woman performs the work on the girl whose feet are tied in a string lasso up over her head having blithely heated a variety of nasty-looking tools over a gas-fired range.  Like the sex and violence, it's completely awful without being informative in any way -- in other words, it's just about what you would expect.  The film is certainly realistic enough, unrelentingly violent, and repugnant -- but to what end?  In the commentary, Slaboshptskiy, whose English is not good, seems to say that this community of deaf-mutes are without any concept of right or wrong -- they act outside of culture (or, rather, within their own vicious tribal sub-culture).  Accordingly, the director asserts that the film's nihilism derives from its subject community:  Ukrainian State-raised deaf-mutes are vicious, primitive beings without morality.  But can this be true?  And aren't we being asked to observe a kind of vicious freak show?  The film provides no commentary -- we don't know if the viciousness that we see is limited to a small group of the deaf students or endemic.  Certainly, it's not helpful that their industrial arts teacher moonlights as a pimp and that the attractive female history teacher seems to flirt with the older boys in the class.  Ultimately, the problem with the film is that we don't with whom to identify.  And the decision to not translate the loquacious sign-language exchanged by the characters seems wholly perverse (and, even, punitive) to me -- it's a language just as much as speaking and, so, why shouldn't we be allowed to know what the characters are saying?  Instead, the film opts to treat the deaf-mutes and their way of communicating as bizarre, freakish, as something entirely "other" to the audience.  Not translating the sign-languages signifies that the viewers are different from the protagonists, remote from them, and apart -- and, yet, the whole premise of the film is to embed us in their world.  But their world involves lots and lots of vehement communication so why aren't we allowed to know exactly what they are saying?   Put another way, why aren't the deaf-mutes allowed to speak for themselves?  (It's interesting to observe that when these deaf people quarrel, they turn their head away and won't look at their interlocutor to show their rejection of what is being communicated; this causes the interlocutor to continually nudge, or slap at the person with whom he or she is communicating, to force that person to look at the signs being made.)   

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