The Tribe, a new film by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, silently speaks for the teenagers who cannot speak
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy was both lucky and unlucky. He was lucky, because his new film The Tribe embarked on its victorious path at the Cannes Festival, the dream of any filmmaker.
It was awarded the Cannes' Critics' Week Grand Prix (the Nespresso Prize). This programme is for films that did not make it to the main competition but are considered worth an award for reasons that only the festival jury knows. The downside of Slaboshpytskiy’s film and its timing is the train of politics that will follow The Tribe for as long as it is watched and remembered.
The fact that the film made it to the Cannes and its subsequent victory there left few doubts that this was a political step, the jury’s welcoming gesture towards Ukraine, a lightly veiled recognition of its rightness. However outstanding The Tribe may be, it is destined to be remembered as a runway for the rising prestige of new Ukrainian cinema. No matter what, this is quite an accomplishment already.
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s name was not unknown before this breakthrough: his short film Nuclear Waste competed in many international festivals, standing out for its somewhat obscure rough aesthetics.
For his feature film debut, Slaboshpytskiy chose a subject that has virtually not been touched in either Ukrainian or world cinema: deaf-mute teenagers abandoned by their families to be raised by the state which, in turn, abandons them to be raised by life. They are the main heroes of Slaboshpytskiy’s drama that evoked lively interest in international cinematography. The boarding school for deaf-mute teenagers that the main character, freshman Serhiy played by Hryhoriy Fesenko, arrives at has its own life, cut off from the rest of the world. A state within a state. The life of the boarding school is not subject to the administration, teachers or even physical affliction of its residents: here, everything is subordinate to the group calling itself “the tribe”. It decides the fate of the teens, takes female students to turn tricks with the truckers, and mugs passers-by. It has its own hierarchy and its own laws. Sooner or later, Serhiy, who is not used to such rules, will have to declare war against them. And this is a war to defeat. There will be no victors.
The film is not simply unusual – in a certain sense, it is unique. Some call it a silent movie, but that is something completely different where the characters do speak, but the director does not want the audience to hear them. The Tribe is a different matter altogether. In it, the viewer hears trees rustle, cars roar, things that fall rattle and a deaf-mute girl sobs out loud from the pain in an illegal abortion room. There are a lot of sounds in this film but the main thing missing is human voice and spoken words.
The authors desperately want the audience to cry out at the unusual silence, and make every second of the film work for it. The very first scene – the silent last bell before summer vacation at the boarding school to which Serhiy comes, is savoury and detailed, possible too detailed. It seems that from the very first minutes, the film is trying to get us used to silence, the main character in this movie. This too, becomes understood from the start, from the moment when the headmaster begins a silent sign dialogue with one of the teachers. Actually, employees at deaf-mute institutions, particularly the management, generally can hear and speak.
Then, the audience follows the deaf-mute personnel of the boarding school into shabby teenagers’ dorms and the school yard, where the boarding school’s adult riffraff gather, into night-time adventures of the school’s beauties with the truckers under the beady eyes of their classmate pimps, and into storerooms where love blossoms between Serhiy and one of these girls played by young Belarusian actress Yana Novikova. The further the characters take you into the labyrinth of the plot, the fewer answers you have to the question: Why are the deaf-mute teenagers here?
When the euphoria of the new sensation, freshness and strangeness of the style fades, the affliction of the characters suddenly seems to be not important. It becomes clear that deafness and muteness helps the director create a beautiful film. But that’s all. If all these teenagers suddenly start to speak, nothing will probably change in the film. The shabby boarding school with abandoned children will still be there. The students will still be there – but they will thrash out their problems loudly and vociferously, not in sign language. There will be the same indifferent and lewd teachers – the only difference is that they will talk. Constant trips to the truck stops will continue – but the girls will also chatter in the breaks between their feigned groans. Just one scene will probably disappear – the one in which one student, a member of the “tribe”, is run over by a truck at night: the driver did not see him and run him over at the parking lot at night while the boy was standing with his back to the truck and could not hear it coming.
In every other aspect, this film is about teenagers. Simply teenagers. The authors wanted them to be deaf-mutes – so why not? That makes the film intense and stylish, unusual and “touching”. But what is there that is unique about the deaf-mutes? The authors made The Tribe bold in form but bare in unique, original substance. This is probably more of artistic speculation that thrives on human curiosity.
No matter what, the film has received international acclaim. The main reason of this is probably the curiosity that pushes people to peek in a small gap in the curtains as a veil between the familiar and the unknown: what is there, in terra incognita? How do people live there? How do they speak with each other? Do they make love differently than I do? Moreover, the actors playing teenagers are all deaf-mute. Let’s leave the political momentum behind. Let’s assume that The Tribe has come out at a time when it is impossible to ignore a film from Ukraine. Neither Slaboshpytskiy, not his deaf-mute actors are to blame for this.
The Ukrainian Week asks American think-tankers and diplomats three questions: 1. Is Ukraine seen as part of Russia’s sphere of influence in the US? 2. Why a part of the American establishment believes that Ukraine should be attributed to Russia’s orbit? 3. What can Ukraine do to counter this approach?