The Tribe | Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy | Ukraine | 2014 | 90 minutes
This Ukranian drama was off of James Kreul’s radar before he noticed it appearing frequently on Best of 2015 lists. Set in a boarding school for deaf-mutes, The Tribe is far from a heartwarming feel-good story. Instead it’s a gritty little crime genre film with a long-take visual aesthetic.
Back in November, when I posted about the lack of top foreign language films playing in the Madison market, I referenced the CriticWire list of The Best Foreign-Language Films of 2015. I recognized most of the titles, but one sitting near the top of the list was completely off my radar.
The Tribe, a Ukrainian drama and the debut feature by director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, stood at number three on CriticWire’s list, with 46 reviews averaging A-. Drafthouse Films picked up The Tribe for distribution back in 2014, and Rotten Tomatoes lists a U.S. opening date in June, 2015, but somehow the film fell through the cracks for Madison audiences.
This doesn’t surprise me. Yesterday, in my review of Hard to Be a God, I mentioned the lack of “hard films” in Madison’s commercial theaters. The Tribe isn’t actually that difficult, but it is a hard sell. Generally, the foreign language films that do make it to local theaters are ones with at least some chance of a commercial crossover and an extended run. Some general audiences are still leery of films with subtitles, so imagine the general response to a foreign film that intentionally does not provide subtitles.
The Tribe begins with Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a deaf-mute young man, asking for directions to a boarding school which will be the central setting for the rest of the film. This first shot establishes several stylistic patterns and parameters: long takes; action staged at a distance from the camera; and no verbal dialogue. Often we have to wait a moment before we understand what action is happening; other times we have to wait for additional information to understand what we have seen. In many ways this adheres to some very conventional screenwriting advice: show, don’t tell.
Sergey falls in with the wrong crowd at school. Unfortunately, that wrong crowd includes some faculty and staff at the school, who run a small crime ring. Sergey meets fellow student Anya (Yana Novikova), who has fallen into that crime ring as a prostitute. Many evenings Anya and her friend are taken to a transport truck parking lot, and a young gang member pimps them to truck drivers.
Due to a series of unfortunate events, Sergey is given the opportunity to serve as Anya’s pimp. It soon becomes clear that Sergey is not mature enough to handle this, but he still pursues a sexual experience with Anya, and she complies. Much of the rest of the film juxtaposes Anya’s aspirations, including an opportunity to go to Italy on “business,” with Sergey’s rise and fall within the gang due to his inability to deal with his emotions.
Most of the action is intelligible because The Tribe draws upon well known tropes of both the crime and juvenile delinquent genres. The film focuses on surface detail to convey narrative information, so we don’t get much psychological complexity from the characters. Once we understand their goals within a scene, we understand the reasons and consequences of their actions (again, show, not tell).
What the film lacks in character complexity it makes up for in sheer visual storytelling and style. The camera confidently floats through elaborately staged long takes often framed in medium or long shots. Sometimes the visual storytelling gets a little too simplistic, like the strategy used to reveal that Anya and her friend would be going to Italy. But scenes are consistently engaging and engrossing, even if they focus on what happens more than why it happens.
I’m not sure if I would categorize The Tribe as true kitchen-sink realism, even though it aspires to be taken that way. At times the visual storytelling and staging borders on being stylized and almost abstract. Personally, I think the film is more interesting because of its stylization of action and dramatic conflicts.
As abstract as it might, get, however, it is also pretty graphic and brutal. There are a few scenes decidedly not for the squeamish. Anya must make some difficult choices if she wants to go to Italy, and Sergey cannot deal with the emotional consequences of their sexual relationship. This is not a good situation to be in when involved in a group with a casual approach to violence. The violence in the film seems all the more brutal due to the relative silence in which it occurs.
Everything in the CriticWire top ten except for The Tribe played at some point in Madison, but only three of those had at least a week long theatrical run (Wild Tales, Phoenix, and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem). We’ve become too dependent on non-theatrical venues and programmers, who are doing the best they can to bring in as much as they can. Ambitious and confident films like The Tribe need to find their way to Madison screens.