Sign language film The Tribe defiantly refuses to meet the hearing world halfway

Hearing audiences might feel that they are being kept at arm’s length and they would be right.

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The Tribe (18)
dir: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy

I’ve been hearing great things about The Tribe for a while now. What no one will hear are great things from this Ukrainian film. Set in a boarding school for deaf-mute adolescents in Kyiv, it is performed in sign language and without subtitles. Hearing audiences might feel that they are being kept at arm’s length and they would be right. The film is about the tension between outsiders and insiders and the sacrifices demanded of those who move from one of those positions to the other.

The opening shots make explicit our estrangement. The camera is stationed on one side of a busy road and we squint through the traffic as a bus disgorges a teenage boy (Grigoriy Fesenko). He walks to his new school, where a cleaner directs him towards another entrance in the opposite direction. He exits the frame while the camera stays put; it peers in through a window at some sort of induction ceremony taking place in the forecourt on the far side of the building. A smiling woman welcomes assorted dignitaries, bouquets are presented and a child sits on an adult’s shoulders, tinkling a bell. Hands are held aloft, fingers waggling in soundless applause.

Once the crowd has dwindled to nought, the boy plods into view in the distance, having taken all this time to complete his journey around the school. It’s an impeccable piece of choreography and a perfect example of how the writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy generates visual noise. First, the boy arrives in that desolate space; then the screen is filled by the flurry of guests; finally he returns once it is deserted again. Think of it as the equivalent of the quiet bit/loud bit/quiet bit formula in a song by the Pixies or Nirvana. It is also the plot of the film in miniature.

The boy falls in with a criminal gang in the school and his progress reflects our experience of watching the film. Like him, we are trying to find purchase on an unfamiliar world. As he struts and stomps around the playgrounds and pavements, the gliding Steadicam lends his lawless errands a theatrical nobility. For all the film’s toughness, there is theatricality, too, in much of the framing. When he has sex with one of the girls in the gang, whom he then tries jealously to salvage from prostitution, they arrange their bodies with a decorous care
at odds with the scene’s explicitness.

The trailer for The Tribe.

A fight sequence in which he asserts his dominance over another boy takes place before bloodthirsty onlookers who dangle from pipes and scaffolding. In the vast frame, their gesticulating hands resemble flightless birds fluttering their wings in panic. Graffiti is everywhere, splashing colour over the pockmarked architecture, and the sign language provides a similar service. Its frenzy disrupts the silence, or near-silence. Sergey Stepanskiy gets a credit for sound design and his ambient noise (creaking playground equipment, distant feral dogs) is the only element to which non-deaf viewers have exclusive access. There is no music in the film and the rejection of the hearing world is comprehensive. This precludes what might have been a productive friction between the hearing and non-hearing communities but it deepens the movie’s defiance, its refusal to meet the hearing halfway.

The Tribe extends ambiguity to the level of detail. When the main sound is the rustling or thump of signing hands, we can only hope to get the gist of what is happening. And just because one scene is intelligible, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t back to zero, writing speculative dialogue in our heads, in the next one. The effect is to deny the hearing world any automatic right to comprehension.

The most striking moments in The Tribe are those that could not have occurred in any other context – a clattering nocturnal ambush, or a strangely subdued road accident, in which the victims’ deafness renders them oblivious to danger. The absence of music and spoken dialogue enriches expressiveness rather than denuding it, so that what appeared to be a deficit is repositioned as a gain: not a bad philosophy to arrive at for a film presenting disability to a largely able-bodied world. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph