Text By: Basil Swartzfager
Original Publication Date: February 2nd, 2015
Detached formal rigor is not always the right choice for material. Each scene in The Tribe consists of one shot, often transitioning from a steadicam follow shot into a medium or wide static tableaux. Or vice-versa, as a character will leave a room and the camera assumes a close position behind them, following them down a murky hallway or dark street. But the film’s subject matter is little more than a lurid teen gangster film, so bereft of original narrative as to force this formal conceit (along with its unsubtitled sign language gimmick) to do all the heavy lifting. The conceit can’t carry the load, and undoes much of what could have worked had the film more readily embraced its pulpy nature. Instead the result recalls a poor man’s Michael Haneke with a dash of Gaspar Noe, mixing the ugly violence of Funny Games with the complicated choreography of Code Unknown. But this film lacks a distinct point-of-view or any interesting comment on the genre conventions it so readily inhabits.
One of the film’s primary failures is in making most of its violence inconsequential and weightless. An early scene comes when the protagonist is walking along the boarding school grounds he attends, the tracking shot that follows him pausing as he arrives at a large group of young men and women hanging near the fringes of the school property. Based on what we have already seen and the positioning of their characters in this desolate space of grey concrete, we are aware that these are “the bad kids.” These hoods then proceed to jump the main character into their gang as the rest look on like a Greek chorus of disaffected youth. The scene lasts a long time, but the violence remains unconvincing. The punches and kicks look both rehearsed and pulled, breaking the diegesis and reminding the viewer that this is nothing but a movie. Admittedly, choreographing believable violence is difficult, especially in a single take. But if the scene is to have any dramatic weight the audience must believe there is something legitimate at stake. These hokey, half-hearted hits eliminate that possibility. One could argue that detachment is part of the film’s intellectual project, but other moments in the film are so unflinching in their ugliness that to assign some of the violence the status of phony, deliberately artificial meta-violence and others not would be to intentionally misconstrue the reality of the film’s construction. More likely the filmmakers simply did not have the resources to train a group of non-athletic film performers just for the sake of one scene, and thus made do with “good enough” in order to preserve the sanctity of their formal conceit.
One such instance of plausible ugliness, the kind that makes the notion that the film is presenting some meta-textual analysis, comes when one of the women becomes pregnant by the main character and chooses to have an abortion without telling him. The entire procedure plays out in a protracted take full of pained screaming (conveniently, for maximum impact, the only time a person makes any significant aural vocalizations in the film) and clinical contempt from the back alley abortionist. Many people at the screening I attended walked out during this scene. I didn’t blame them. Up until this point what the film had offered was so rote, so blandly similar to every nihilistic European crime film about the dissolution of society, that I didn’t believe the film had earned the right to show us something so real, so horrific, so personal. Rather than elaborate on an unseen aspect of social chaos, this scene simply felt like upping the ante in terms of what filmmakers are willing to force audiences to sit through. It felt like misery porn of the most cynically irresponsible order.
For one, the film denies us any true connection to the characters. They have no interiority. The lack of close-ups makes it difficult to even distinguish which of the similarly-brown haired boys is which. The subtitled sign language gives their actions only the broadest psychological significance to anyone who does not speak Ukrainian sign language (over 99% of the film’s audience, I would wager). In this way, the film denies them humanity. Like Only Dwarves Started Small, the film turns disability into a broad social allegory, denying personhood to make these characters’ alien-ness a metaphor for contemporary alienation, for the ways social systems in Ukraine have failed the youth and resulted in horrible crimes, inequity, and injustice. But this commentary is so lacking in specificity that it might as well be Norway or England or Brazil or the United States for all it says about Ukrainian social conditions. And the characters may as well be under a spell that prohibits them from speaking, ala that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for all it says about the realities of living with deafness as a youth within these systems.
Slaboshpitsky could have dealt in specificity and still made the same points. He could have given us the day-to-day realities of living in a boarding school for deaf teenagers. The anxieties ofand frustrations that causes, as well as the ways in which those groups bond, don’t bond, hurt each other. But instead it goes for the cliche, reveling in its ugliness while remaining clinically detached so as to afford the perspective of chastisement and intellectualism. This distance could have been the film’s point: to create a work for an audience that is almost entirely overlooked in modern filmmaking, deliberately impenetrable to outsiders. But if that’s the case it still failed, because the situations remain featureless amalgam of European art cinema’s most odious habits. The lack of close personal observation feels more insulting if one assumes that as the pretext for the film’s inception. So the project becomes a hollow gimmick, an arthouse marketing tactic, dishonest in its desire to show atrocities while denying the audience access to the circumstances that generate these horrors. The film would barely be any different if the characters did speak. Given the artifice of its form and trite conventionality of its narrative, I doubt they would have anything interesting to say.
-Basil Swartzfager, 2015