My dad taught sign language for 30 years, and growing up, my parents would sign at the dinner table when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying. (I retained about five signs, including “I love you,” “f*ck,” “bullsh*t,” and “eat sh*t and die.” I’m mature.) Where I saw two people communicating in a foreign language, The Tribe director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy apparently saw “a miracle,” people “directly exchanging feelings and emotions without words.”
That’s how Slaboshpytskiy described seeing deaf people signing for the first time as a boy in Ukraine, where his own school was across the street from a school for the deaf. That experience became Slaboshpytskiy’s inspiration for The Tribe, which is, yes, a two-hour-plus movie told entirely in sign language, with no subtitles (though it does have a decent amount of teen sex, and a 69-ing scene that I would describe as “strangely tender”). It’s the kind of bold (some might say gimmicky) decision the festival circuit tends to reward, as evidenced by The Tribe‘s truckload of awards, from Cannes, AFI, Fantastic Fest etc. It’s currently expanding to a handful of theaters across the country courtesy of Drafthouse.
The surefire buzz-generating hook is, it’s a Ukrainian sign language movie that doesn’t use subtitles. My question: maybe it should have?
Leaving The Tribe untranslated gives it an air of the exotic, sure, but I’m not sure it makes it better. Believing so requires us to ascribe sign language some mystical power of sub-verbal communication that I don’t believe it has. A monolingual English speaker could understand as much of The Tribe if it was in French as in sign language (more if it was in Italian); it’s facial expressions and body language, it’s not magic. Certainly it’s unique the way certain plot points become clear only in retrospect, but turning this story into a form puzzle takes the focus away from what’s actually interesting about it.
We follow our main character as he enrolls in a new school. He starts as the bullied outsider, making “seat’s taken” seem like a warm welcome, but eventually gets drawn into an organized crime and prostitution ring run by a corrupt woodshop teacher, and ends up falling in love with one of the prostitutes (you can imagine how well that goes).
Now, what’s more interesting here: the part where deaf people are signing, or the part where deaf people are forming mafias to take care of themselves in a country where the government doesn’t offer them many services? We get just the vaguest gist of all this, the broadstrokes of a story when I desperately want details.
Slaboshpitskiy’s aesthetic choice, to shoot entire scenes in single tracking or static shots, is more successful. The lengthy takes and constant sense of voyeurism is hypnotic, and beautiful, but even in this area there are times The Tribe‘s formalistic rigidity hurts what it’s trying to communicate. A long shot just isn’t the best way to shoot certain things. Like, say, a fight scene, which comes off looking like the characters got together to practice some elaborate breakdance show (it’s pretty hard to make a fight look real in a long take, from a single angle, using 20 or more non-professional actors). Or during a gynecological exam, when all I could focus on was where the actors were actually putting the instruments (a scene reminiscent of the rather more tedious awards-bait Romanian art movie from a few years ago, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days).
Having a hook is great – it’s a must for a foreign art film that’s trying to get attention. But if your hook is hindering your content, part of being a mature storyteller is being flexible enough to improvise now and again.
The Tribe is intriguing, but also frustrating. I left wanting to read more about it (what kind of sign language were they using? where did he find the actors? are there really deaf mafias?), but at a certain point you wonder whether you’re getting more out of the articles than the movie. Without conversational nuance, we mostly just get a collection of lurid things happening – drugs! sex! revenge! The most interesting things in The Tribe are happening behind the scenes. That’s not story, it’s buzz.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.