Action and Emotions Speak Louder

in 11th Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival

by Paulo Portugal

Fresh from joy at Cannes after winning the coveted Semaine de la Critique prize among other awards, Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpitskiy’s debut feature The Tribe (Plemya) is quickly becoming a festival darling and a film beast hungry for accolades. In Yerevan it grabbed both the FIPRESCI and the Golden Apricot awards.

In this intriguing journey, the viewer’s attention is up for both a challenge and a treat: no words are recognisable, only sign language, as it is a film without dialogue, subtitles or voiceover, made by an all-deaf cast of amateur actors. Here oral language is absent. However The Tribe is far from a silent film, as several noises and sounds are heard. It’s true to say that we end up understanding part of their conversations and, of course, all the action. In a way, it’s the emotions and impulses we follow. It might seem a premise too hard to handle, but this stunning picture will slowly crawl into you and won’t let go or fade away long after the disturbing conclusion of this very unusual story.

Although original in its approach, filming in sign language was not new for the 40-year-old filmmaker. In a way, The Tribe is somewhat of an expansion of his third short Deafness, presented in Berlin in 2010, following an adolescent deaf man who obviously has some dirty business with the police that end up harassing him. In our interview Slaboshpitskiy confirmed his particular interest in exploring the limits, but also the possibilities, of silent film. An idea, as he told us, that has been tested since the 90s.

Yet again we see a kind of gangster behaviour in The Tribe. The story evolves in the microcosmos of an educational institution in Ukraine, ruled by gang codes, hierarchy and corruption. Nothing new here, as The Tribe has the same structure as other gangster or western flicks. What makes it really unique is its formal approach, its radical, realistic subject and the clever mise en scène.

The silent antihero Sergey (an intense Grigoriy Fesenko) arrives in the institution and tries to cope with the violent codes, before becoming one of the perpetrators. Don’t expect any kind of pity or sympathy for any of these characters, in the likes of Children of a Lesser God, as there is no evident moral intent within this all-deaf cast. In fact, it is very difficult to like any of these characters. Behind the scenes one of the teachers is running a prostitution operation with some of the girls of the school and emigration plans to send them to Italy. In the process, the quiet boy ends up falling for Anna (a revelation called Yana Novikova) and confronting the organisation, with the worst result.

After the first minutes it becomes clear that actions, all in sequence shots,will drive the narrative. That’s when we understand that we’re in for a very different ride. The structure is obviously simple, in a way to elevate actions over words. The result is very effective, and it is hard to avoid the impression of experiencing something new.

The language barrier is easily transcended, to a platform of understanding that puts everyone on the same level. During the 130 minutes we are assaulted by some very explicit and graphic sex scenes, a disturbing abortion and one particularly ultra-violent scene. Still, the idea of a romantic story remains possible. Switching from fixed camera shots to steadycam for movement, Slaboshpitskiy manages to articulate a mesmerising and intriguing flow. He is never gratuitous, even if sometimes some scenes are permitted to go on longer than needed. Maybe this is just the way Slaboshpitskiy wishes to unfold this particular realism. And there is truth to the notion that in this ostensibly silent film, the actions of a wrenching reality do speak louder than any words.

Edited by Carmen Gray