This weekend I had the pleasure of attending Boston’s thirteenth annual Independent Film Festival. I was only able to see two films this year, though both were excellent—though maybe not on the level of Boyhood, the standout from last year’s fest. On Friday night I caught a screening of Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe, set at a Ukrainian school for deaf teenagers. I had first heard about this film a year or so ago when it caused come buzz at Cannes, where it won the award for the best film screened in the Critics’ Week sidebar. The film contains no spoken dialogue because the characters communicate with each other using sign language, and because the sign language has not been subtitled we are forced to interpret relationships and motivations by observing the characters’ body language and other context clues. (The effect is not so different from watching a film from the silent era.) The film opens with an unnamed boy’s arrival at the school, which he soon discovers is ruled by a gang of thugs and petty criminals. Our hero is forced to make a place for himself within the gang’s hierarchy, and when one of his fellow gang members is killed in a grisly accident, he takes over his role as a pimp, escorting two female classmates to a nearby lot where they’re farmed out to local truck drivers. Complications arise when he develops an emotional attachment to one of the girls in his charge.
It’s immediately clear that the characters in The Tribe are hardly the innocent objects of sympathy that one so often finds in films about disabled people. Nor is the film itself a sweet or uplifting story about children learning to cope with the limits of their abilities—in fact, the characters’ deafness seems almost incidental to the plot of the film itself, serving primarily to accentuate the distance between us and the closed community we are observing. At the same time that it goes out of its way to keep us at a remove from the world of its subjects, The Tribe suggests that the social arrangements within this community are basic, perhaps even universal, rather than anomalous. (It also suggests that the corruption within the school is only a smaller-scale version of what goes on outside its walls.) Slaboshpitsky doesn’t shy away from scenes of explicit sex and violence, as what first appears to be a variation on a prison drama or crime film ends up resembling a Jacobean revenge tragedy. At the screening I attended, the film’s last half-hour elicited gasps and winces from the audience, none of whom (myself included) seemed quite prepared for the intensity of this material. I respect the grim minimalism of Slaboshpitsky’s approach, which invites comparison to Michael Haneke or a New Romanian film like 4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days, but that doesn’t make it any easier to take.