Review: ‘The Tribe’ uses only sign language to tell a hard and haunting story

From the moment the company was formed, Drafthouse Films has been about taking on challenges that are worth the time and effort. After all, the first film they distributed was the brilliant Chris Morris comedy “Four Lions,” a movie that dared take a dark comic look at suicide bombers. That's not why the film is great, of course. Anyone can try to offend. There's no skill in that. But Morris made something smart and human and worthwhile, and Drafthouse did their very best to get the film the best possible release.

So when you describe a film as a “hard sell,” it may be terrifying to some distributors, but not Drafthouse. If they believe in something, they'll take the chance and they'll do their best. One of the most unusual films they own right now played Cannes, Toronto and Fantastic Fest, and it's playing now at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, and it is the sort of film that is worth seeing more than once, and it's absolutely worth sharing with other people.

Written and directed by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, “The Tribe” is the story of a young man named Sergey (Grigory Fesenko) who joins a new boarding school for the deaf. He quickly figures out that pretty much everyone at the school is a hustler in some way, and he falls in with a group of kids who are into petty theft and prostitution. When he falls in love with Anna (Yana Novikova), one of the girls, it creates a major rift and leads to tragedy and horror. That's pretty much it, story-wise, but what makes the film so riveting is also what makes it unique. There is no dialogue in “The Tribe” at all. No one speaks out loud at all. Instead, the entire film is in sign language, and there are no subtitles.

The impact this has on the viewer is remarkable. By about twenty minutes into the film, I found myself “hearing” dialogue as each new scene unfolded. I don't remotely pretend to understand sign language, but the performances, the direction, and the energy of the film manage to communicate clearly everything that is being felt and shared. It's amazing the way it works, and there are so many moments in the film that are remarkable not only for the drama of what we're watching, but for the almost alien quality of what we're looking at.

There's a scene where Sergey is jumped into the gang, for example, where he has to fight  to prove himself, and all the older kids from the school are packed in to watch the fight. The entire time the fight unfolds, everyone in the stands is “talking” non-stop, dozens of hands flashing from letter to letter, all frantic, all caught up in the energy of the thing, and not a single sound from any of them. There's another moment where Anna is arguing with her best friend, and when she gets upset, she just turns away, effectively silencing her friend completely. The violence of the argument, the way they have to visually assert themselves to each other to be “heard,” it's thrilling and surreal and pulls us in. Those are just two examples, and it's a movie packed with arresting and unforgettable images.

The performances are stunning, especially when you consider there are very few professional actors in the cast. The cast attacks the material, and it's impressive the way the film refutes almost the entire history of how deaf people are treated on film. 99% of the time, when you see a character in a movie with a disability of any kind, the film is about overcoming that disability or triumphing in spite of it or learning to live with it in a positive way. This film doesn't remotely soft-pedal the lives of these kids, and it doesn't turn any of them into romantic figures or tragic heroes. It is revolutionary to simply see them treated as people. Good, bad, and a whole spectrum of experience in-between.

Valentyn Vasyanovych is both the cinematographer and editor of the film, and it is a remarkable technical accomplishment. This is brutally strong filmmaking, aggressive and alive and impeccably accomplished. Much of the film is told in long, complex, impressive single shots, and there is a fluid rhythm to the filmmaking throughout. There is some dark material throughout, and then the film eventually drops into a whole different level of hell for a fairly incendiary final movement, but it never feels gratuitous or like exploitation, and I think that's because of the elegance of the way it's put together. Also, in the absence of language, what becomes important in the audio mix is very striking, and Sergey Stepanskiy's sound design is incredible.

“The Tribe” is a singular experience, and it's absolutely something you should see in a theater, as big as possible, so you can find yourself pulled into it without distraction. It's going to be a hard film to sell to the general public, but it's a worthwhile kind of difficult, and of all the films I've seen this year, this is on a very small list of things I found absolutely essential. When Drafthouse Films rolls this out in 2015, make the effort. It's something you'll never forget.