The Tribe

The Tribe won a few awards at the Cannes Film Festival last year and it is easy to see why: it is a highly stylized movie with an interesting hook. The Tribe is set in a Ukrainian school for the deaf and it has no spoken dialogue at all - the entire story is told using unsubtitled sign language. It is a bold choice that mostly pays off. The film often feels like a two hour version of Hemingway's Iceberg - particularly in its early going it gives you the sense that you are only seeing the surface of something, but that underneath the water line there is something deep and challenging.

Of course, it also won some awards at Cannes because it is a very European film. For one it has a specifically Ukrainian feel - the cinematography showcases a lot of shabby concrete buildings and gray skies, giving the film a certain Soviet-bloc bleakness. More importantly, the film follows a lot of European cinematic conventions. The Tribe is unsparing in the same way say a Michael Haneke film might be- its camera finds an ugly sight, and then it depicts that ugliness with an unromantic honesty... And then it keeps depicting it and depicting it to the point where the punishment takes on a quasi-religious aspect. The Tribe is both a measured meditation on social injustice and an unsubtle attempt to flog you into repentance. 

While I can understand why someone would think that such an unsentimental and confrontational film was award worthy I have to say that this not my cup of tea. For every scene that felt refreshingly bold there was another scene that just felt gratuitous. The main character is a young boy who gets pressured by his peers into pimping two of his female schoolmates, and I understand why the Tribe showed his first trip to the truck stop in such full detail - watching him go to every single parked trailer to solicit johns really illustrates what a grim grind his job is. But later he falls in love with one of the two girls and we see their first sexual dalliance from start to finish - from undressing in a grimy boiler room to their first awkward caresses through three positions and ultimately their climax. A little bit of sex is daring; a lot of sex is just pornography.

I might feel differently if the subject matter was different, but there just isn't much that you can say about this sort of appalling exploitation that would feel fresh or legitimately challenging. Is there anyone out there who is under the illusion that being a deaf-mute truck-stop prostitute is glamorous or fun? I am already against back-alley abortions; I already understand that they are invasive, brutal and mostly unnecessary in the modern world. What am I supposed to learn from seeing such a procedure from start to finish in all of its gory detail? At a certain point this sort of audience attacking becomes counter-productive because viewers stop sympathizing with the characters and start sympathizing with the actors. The character who was having to endure that abortion was fake-traumatized, but the actress who had to pretend to be that person was probably real-traumatized, so my heart goes out to her a lot more.

I want to be clear: I am not objecting to the Tribe's explicit material for prudish reasons. A few years ago one of my coworkers called in sick because her menstrual cramps were so intense that she could barely get out of bed. When another coworker asked "why is so-and-so not here?" I replied with something vague like "oh, she's having female troubles today." I was told: "oh, it's so cute when guys try to talk about this stuff - they get so squeamish!" I told her point blank that I wasn't squeamish, I was professional. I have no problem discussing a woman's period; back when I was in college I used to have that conversation with my friend Georgia at least once a month. But I'm not going to talk about someone's internal condition at great length when I'm on the clock because that just seems unnecessary. I'm not afraid of graphic material - but I also have the good sense to appreciate discretion.

The Tribe is a movie that doesn't understand that subtlety; it doesn't get that a certain amount of thematic brinkmanship can be effective, but that piling on provocation after provocation produces an overall product that is tacky at best and tiresome at worst. I can respect the scene where the protagonist knocks out a rival and then goes from cabinet to cabinet to closet looking for a secret stash of cash - the extreme length of his search gives the scene a sense of verisimilitude. But that moment would be a lot more powerful if it was an outlier, if there was a sense that for once the clock was ticking and he just couldn't find what he was looking for. However, the movie had already given us so many long takes that the steadiness of that scene just seemed par for the course. We had already seen someone order a passport from start to finish so why wouldn't we see a robbery from start to finish?

The Tribe culminates in an act of unflinching violence, and as I was leaving the theater I was scanning the crowd, trying to see just how shellshocked everyone was. I was surprised to discover that more than half of us were smirking. Perhaps Americans are just too timid to be able to invest in such uncompromising material - maybe the crowd was just using snark as a defense mechanism to protect themselves from having to embrace some of the world's harshest realities. Or it could just be that the final scene was so brutal that it was ridiculous - trying so hard to shock us that it tiptoed past its point of maximum impact and into self parody.

Its hard to know; it was probably a bit of both. I don't know that I disagree with the rave reviews that this won at Cannes, but I also know that my overall response to the Tribe was not respect or awe but rather frustration. Here was a chance to really delve into unexplored territory - I have no idea what it is like to be a deaf-mute, much less a deaf-mute in a foreign land, and I would love to get a portal into such a singular experience. But I did already know that most small time hustlers lead rough lives, and these character's inability to talk doesn't really factor into a lot of their frustrations - I don't need to hear a woman scream to know that being forced to have sex with strangers in a truck stop is unpleasant - and so this material doesn't do a good job of exploring these character's lives.

The Tribe lives between extremes, simultaneously being novel and predictable, being heartbreaking and eye rolling, being award worthy and unwittingly amusing. I am sure that this film will continue to have its partisans - and I won't argue with them. But I have to say: I can't see myself joining forces with the Tribe's acolytes anytime soon. 

Winner: Draw

The Tribe on IMDB