Poetics of (Sign) Language in Cannes Critic's Week 2014

in 67th Cannes Film Festival

by Frédéric Jaeger

A film without translation, without subtitles, without voice-over — but instead completely in sign language — came out of Ukraine: The Tribe (Plemya) by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy. The winner of the main awards from this year’s Critics’ Week in Cannes, the oldest parallel section of the festival, opened with what you might call a most daring premise.

For its over two-hour running time the film did not once display a conversation the non-sign-speaking audience could understand through the words the characters utter. And talk, they do: The Tribe is not at all a silent film. We witness the rituals in a specialised boarding school for deaf-and-dumb, where Sergey has to take part in a variety of criminal enterprises including arranging the prostitution of his female schoolmates.

While he enters this world and interacts with the hierarchically organised tribe, he and the others constantly engage in heated conversations, the contents of which we can only imagine through its physical embodiment and narrative context. It is without question an impressive achievement and a revelation of the cinematic talent of its debutant director that he manages to captivate a public on the outside of the conversational aspect of its action.

Slaboshpytskiy builds his storytelling on very explicit situations and cleverly shot sequences in which the camera follows dynamically the protagonists’ journey through the boarding school and its surroundings. At the same time, The Tribe evolves into a voyeuristic tale of a debauchery the audience cannot partake in, but has no option to seriously question. Because of its premise and the lack of options language would offer, the film acts as an even stronger deterministic force as in similar poetics à la Michael Haneke, where the violence of its raw characters always serves a double purpose: to elicit a fascination and to stroke the morally superior feeling of being on the right side of things — which is: outside of the action, sitting still, in shock and awe.

As the Festival de Cannes was dominated by a regain of trust and appetite for words in it’s Official Competition, two other highlights of the 2014 edition of the Critic’s Week put language front and centre. Nadav Lapid’s second feature The Kindergarten Teacher (Haganenet) — shown as a Special Screening — could be understood as a celebration of the power of poems, while the opening film FLA by French director Djinn Carrénard delved into the realm of a couples’ need to argue in a breathtaking effort to give language the length and breadth it can have in everyday life.

Carrénard stays true to the guerrilla style in which he had already shot his first feature Donoma (2011) and offers a rare perspective on the French language as it is spoken by young people from different backgrounds. The closest reference, while very different in its point of view and aesthetic ambitions, would be Abtellatif Kéchiche’s early films like Games of Love and Chance (L’esquive, 2003). The almost three-hour long FLA is an overbearing and sometimes painstakingly outspoken film. It is like an Unidentified Flying Object from what we’ve come to expect from festival cinema, which is just one of many reasons not to miss it should a chance arise.

The Kindergarten Teacher might not be equally unexpected, since its Israeli director Nadav Lapid has been on almost every radar since his strong debut Policeman (Ha-shoter, 2011), which won the Special Jury Prize at the Locarno Film Festival. Nevertheless Lapid does find a quite unique style, echoing the impact the poems invented by a five-year-old boy have on its kindergarten teacher. The camera is sometimes immersed in the action, gets touched, rammed or looked at, but also depicts the radiant microcosm of the kindergarten from a distance, letting the audience find its own place within the ambivalent story.

Lapid’s film can be read in many different ways, as a cautionary tale regarding a grown woman’s desires for the young and their hopefully promising future or as a romantic vision of the revolutionary potential of language, when it is not confined to pragmatic goals. The Kindergarten Teacher is overwhelming in its openness towards its protagonists and, while Lapid never leaves contemporary Israeli society, he formulates a strong statement in favour of imagination and bold moves, even if, and especially when, they are bound to fail: A statement that may very well stand for the festival as a whole.

Edited by Richard Mowe