Fantastic Fest 2014 Review: ‘The Tribe’
The Tribe is a movie starring deaf actors entirely in sign language, with no subtitles. At first it seems like simply a worthwhile experiment. It’s like what Mel Gibson wanted to do with the Aramaic in Passion of the Christ, and nobody else is making a sign language movie with no translation so it should certainly exist. As The Tribe builds, you realize it is a film about deaf people made specifically for hearing people to create a unique aesthetic experience, utilizing the unique tools of that scenario for a powerful impact.
A new student arrives at a school for the deaf and ends up getting involved in a drug trade and prostitution with his fellow students. All of the characters have names, but I couldn’t name them because they are never spoken. Because we don’t have translations for their sign language dialogue, the characters are entirely defined by their actions. As they should be anyway, but it’s quite an extreme way to execute that level of character development. It would also be a very different film for viewers who can sign and read sign.
There’s an old theory that if a movie is good, you can turn the sound off and still understand the story. I think that’s wrong because great dialogue is cinematic. When forced to put it to the test though, it can be true. I can get the impression of what the characters are signing from their intensity and facial expressions. You feel the impact of this paradigm when an accident occurs directly relating to the victim not hearing a warning sound, something which we all take for granted. Later, a character uses that to his advantage to commit violence undetected. The shocking violence tops Irreversible, only The Tribe is not pretentious about it.
Writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky crafts the film in extended long takes that get increasingly more intense. Many sequences are simple things that would unfold in the time that elapses in a single take. Several raw and intimate sex scenes feature the characters negotiating positions while the camera holds still. The piece de resistance is a taboo subject that unfolds in an elaborate single take. It was so harrowing I would have applauded if it would not have been completely inappropriate for the subject matter to do so.
I’m a total creep for saying this, but one thing I noticed is that in the very explicit sex scenes, the actors’ bodies seemed to be in the slightly wrong positions to portray sex. This is exactly the mistake they should be making, because it’s only acting and they should keep a safe and respectful distance, but I felt I could tell the bodies were a little too far apart to be really engaged in penetration. I know, I’m a film geek, not a doctor. Maybe this is just what it looks like from the outside.
The cast is made up of non actors but you wouldn’t suspect that. They are full of life and energy. I often find when directors brag about using non actors, they mistake a lack of screen presence for “reality.” Not so in The Tribe, and I would expect to see other writers create stories tailored to this cast just so they can have an excuse to work with them.
The Tribe would make a great companion piece with a movie that played festivals in 2012-2013 called Imagine. It was about a blind teacher teaching his blind students to navigate the sighted world without depending on instruments like canes that identify them as “different” to society. Imagine was also an inherently cinematic exercise, because the teacher’s entire lesson was based on using environmental cues and becoming attuned to a scene. The Tribe is perhaps an inverse, giving a hearing audience a disadvantage, but that’s just a bonus. It would be outstanding filmmaking even with subtitles.