As if a movie about deaf, school-aged Ukrainian gangsters made entirely without dialogue weren’t an unlikely enough premise for a hit movie, The Tribe—by writer/director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy—is also a real downer. One reviewer said it had her “sobbing uncontrollably with my hands over my head;” another called it the “deaf Scarface.”
And yet the film debuted to acclaim at festivals last year, and has been touring around the country with Drafthouse Films, spending a week or two in different cities. The Tribe was shot in 2013 in Kiev, uses only Ukrainian sign language, and features no voice-over or translation. The story is entirely dependent on what the actors are able to communicate with their bodies, and the performances are, for the most part, believable and strong. But although the film is innovative in its storytelling, it’s unclear whether its larger purpose is to tell a larger story about life in modern-day Ukraine, or simply to shake viewers to the core.
The Tribe follows a young deaf man, Serhiy, as he arrives as the new kid at a boarding school for the deaf. He quickly finds himself inducted into a gang of older boys who pimp out their girlfriends and steal from townies under the watch of complicit school staffers. Other than in one stomach-churning scene, the teens’ deafness doesn't seem to hold them back much. The boys’ chief skills appear to be knocking people unconscious and wordlessly conveying blowjob prices to truck drivers. After some initial hazing, Serhiy takes well to the thug life. But things turn ugly when he falls in love with Yana, one of his sex-worker classmates.
The Tribe is riveting, in part because you have to stay riveted to understand what's happening. The only sounds in the movie are those of fists hitting flesh, vodka glasses clinking, and grunts of anger. When there are no words, every grimace means something. The Ukrainian version of Valley-Girl speak gets brilliantly rendered with open palms and shrugged shoulders. Before it becomes deeply unsettling, the romance between the two main characters is briefly poignant and—as much as a love affair between a newly minted pimp and his adolescent prostitute can be—fairly realistic.
Slaboshpytskiy doesn't know sign language; he relied on the local deaf community for casting and on interpreters for the direction. He has said he was inspired by a deaf boarding school near his childhood home in Ukraine and by his many years as a crime reporter there. The plot draws on “real-life accounts of so-called ‘deaf mafias’ that operate within the Ukrainian deaf community,” as Slaboshpytskiy told the Daily Beast:
The Tribe is based on a number of stories that the people in the deaf community told me. The deaf mafia is like any alternative system of society, they have unofficial taxes, they have unofficial trials, unofficial bosses in the city.
It may be rooted in reality, but the plot veers into far-fetched terrain at points. Slaboshpytskiy appears to be condemning the wanton kleptocracy that had seized Ukraine in the absence of good government services. “They have a boss in every city which controls the life of the community. I wanted to tell [that] story, on the youngest and lowest levels … so I put it inside a school,” he told Rolling Stone. That much comes through loud and clear, despite the silence. Still, it's hard to believe that any school, even one trapped in whatever post-Soviet hellscape this is supposed to represent, would look the other way as its wood-shop teacher sold two upperclassmen into sex slavery.
Slaboshpytskiy did his reporting in the ’90s—a decade in which the Soviet Union fell apart and proceeded to function about as lawfully as his fictional school does. But is it really still that bad?
The Tribe reminds me of another movie in the depressing post-Soviet genre, Lilya 4 Ever, which was set in an unnamed Baltic nation in the early aughts. Based on the true story of a Lithuanian prostitute, the movie’s protagonist is an impoverished teen who is abandoned by her family and sex-trafficked across borders. But just a few years after that film was released, former backwaters like Estonia and Latvia transformed into the “Baltic Tigers.” These days, Lilya would be more likely to get a job at Skype than to become a sex slave. It’s not clear whether Slaboshpytskiy is trying to say that Ukraine hasn't progressed similarly.
When Leviathan, yet another movie about the sinister side of Slavs, came out last year, residents of the far-northern Russian city on which it was based decried the harsh treatment, saying they were portrayed as “drunkards living in our own dump.” But film critics—and even some politicians—defended the film, suggesting that directors only expose the dark realities of their homelands because they love them. Maybe that was Slaboshpytskiy’s aim, as well.
Then again, Americans don't expect Hollywood to reflect our social ills realistically. Perhaps it's a sign of progress in former-USSR cinema if films like The Tribe can serve as works of art, rather than journalism.