Issue 48 (2015)

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy: The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)

reviewed by Claire Shaw© 2015

dvoe-fedorovaIn 1965, the young director Mikhail Bogin premiered his first short film, Two in Love (Dvoe), about the relationship between a young, hearing musician, Serezha (Valentin Smirnitskii) and a beautiful deaf acrobat, Natasha (played by the hearing actress Viktoria Fedorova). The film was feted internationally, winning the FIPRESCI award at the Moscow International Film Festival, and cemented Bogin’s position as the up-and-coming director of his day. The film received more lukewarm reviews from the deaf community; the use of hearing actors and the near-absence of sign language was criticized for giving an unrealistic portrayal of the reality of deaf lives. Yet for Bogin, the film allowed him to break down the barriers between the deaf and hearing worlds, and to acquaint the hearing with the abilities, and the essential humanity, of deaf people: “We understood that here was an opportunity to show our audience something new. It is true that foreign directors have made several films about the deaf [...]. But in these films, people deprived of hearing are shown as poor, rejected by society and humbled. No, we had a very different goal in mind […] we wanted to tell of the spiritual community of Soviet people, of genuine human worth” (Baulin and Razdorskii 1965).

tribeThis celebration of the humanity of deaf characters is certainly not seen in The Tribe, the anarchic and violent directorial debut by the Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, which was awarded three major prizes at the Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics’ Week in 2014. The Tribe is a difficult film to summarise; filmed entirely in sign language without dubbing or subtitling, the action is often obtuse and hard to follow. An understanding of the basic plot can nevertheless be gleaned. The Tribe tells the story of Sergey (Grygoriy Fesenko), a deaf teenager who moves to a new boarding school and is soon drawn into the criminal activities of a gang led by the charismatic ‘King’. He joins his new tribe in their illicit evening activities, mugging, stealing, drinking and pimping out his classmates Anya (Yana Novikova) and Svetka (Roza Babiy) at the local truck stop. Having scraped up enough money to persuade Anya to sleep with him, he gradually develops feelings for her, cemented through a number of explicit (and paid for) sexual encounters. Yet their budding relationship is threatened by an unwanted pregnancy and Anya and Svetka’s plans to emigrate to Italy. These tensions lead to a shocking and violent conclusion.

The Tribe builds on Slaboshpytskiy’s short film Deafness (Glukhota 2011), which depicted the violent interrogation of a deaf boarding-school pupil by the Ukrainian police. Both films reflect a growing fascination with the violent nature of the ‘deaf world’ in Russian and East European cinema, which began with Valerii Todorovskii’s portrayal of the deaf mafia in Land of the Deaf (Strana glukhikh 1998). In contrast to Todorovskii’s film, in which the deaf characters were played by hearing actors Slaboshpytskiy’s work also shows the developing trend for the ‘authentic’ portrayal of deafness in film, which was first signalled in Russia by Sergei Loban’s use of signing deaf actor Aleksei Znamenskii in Chapiteau Show (Shapito Shou 2011). The Tribe is performed by a cast of untrained deaf actors from across the post-Soviet space, who converse exclusively in sign language; the few encounters with hearing characters happen outside the earshot of the viewer, through written notes or sign language interpretation. For Slaboshpytskiy, this immersion in the ‘authentic’ deaf world was a means to access the universality of human experience: as he told the magazine of the Russian deaf society, “I would say that this is a classic film about growing up: first love, first jealousy. The recognition of yourself as an adult, the formation of your personality. In short, this is a humanistic film” (Proshkin 2013).

tribeDespite its claims to universality, The Tribe cannot escape being a film about deafness, and the cultural antecedents of Slaboshpytskiy’s subject matter are evident throughout the film. The plot borrows a number of stereotypes about deafness and the deaf community that began in the Soviet era and were fostered through film and cultural representation. The notion of deaf people as innately violent and prone to crime was a constant of the Soviet period, despite the widespread successes of the deaf in industry and the arts. A point of particular concern for the Soviet deaf community was the tendency of certain deaf people to sell postcards on the electric train system, trading on their disability to shirk an “honest” factory job; the scenes of deaf children selling toys on trains thus directly references this historic source of ‘shame’ for the deaf community. Sergey’s involvement with the ‘deaf mafia’ echoes the character of the deaf mafia boss “Pig” in Land of the Deaf, and the hyper-violent behavior of the deaf ‘tribe’ leaves the viewer feeling particularly alienated. The gender relationships in this film are also problematic; the young deaf women, Anya and Svetka, are viewed almost entirely in terms of their bodies, as commodities to be bought and sold for the entertainment of their hearing clients and their deaf friends.

Many reviews of The Tribe have emphasized its reliance on the conventions of teenage gangs and boarding school “hazing;” the echoes of Lord of the Flies are clear in the charismatic leadership of ‘King’ and the casual violence meted out to younger boys. Yet the few deaf adults in the film are no better; the woodwork teacher is involved in the drug selling business and drives the women to meet their clients. Not surprisingly, this characterization of all generations of deaf people as violent, criminal and highly sexualized has provoked a significant backlash from the post-Soviet deaf community. As the Russian deaf reviewer Evgenii Mazaev (2014) commented: “This film was watched by two different ‘planets’ [the hearing and the deaf] which are far distant from each other. A hearing director has made a film for a mass, hearing audience. The hearing have become acquainted with the ‘shocking reality’ and have taken it at face value. […] Try telling people who are thunderstruck by the cruelty of the action that it is only a fantasy, that the film isn’t about deaf people, that it’s only an experiment with form. It’s useless.”

tribeIndeed, this “experiment with form” only serves to increase the ghettoization of deaf experience in the film. The action takes place almost entirely in Kiev’s Special School for the Hard of Hearing, a closed deaf space experienced almost entirely through the visual (the film has no soundtrack, although the hearing viewer is aware of layers of ambient sound). The camera luxuriates in this visual perception and plays with the perspective of the viewer, manipulating lines of sight through car windows, grates and fences. Valentyn Vasyanovich, the director of photography, constructs the film in thirty-four extended takes, with scenes either playing out in front of a distant, fixed camera, or following characters in long, tracking shots through school corridors, as moments of action take place in the camera’s peripheral vision. This again distances the viewer; many shots follow the back of Sergei’s head as he walks through and around the school, thus depriving us of the opportunity to search Grygoriy Fesenko’s face and attempt to understand his feelings. A particularly harrowing scene shows an illegal abortion; filmed dispassionately in one long take in a grimy bathroom, it is all the more horrifying for the perceived neutrality and distance of the camera’s gaze.

The decision not to subtitle the film also increases the sense of isolation. This is, perhaps, the boldest of Slaboshpytskiy’s formal experiments; he announces in the only intertitle of the film that there will be “no translation, no subtitles, no voice-over on purpose.” Reviewers have likened the resulting gesture play to early silent film. The decision to remove “the word” from this film and rely on the plasticity of gesture to convey emotion has echoes of the earliest experimentations with Soviet deaf theatre, in which the “internationalism” of mime and sign were expected to overcome linguistic barriers and speak to all audiences. Again, however, the hearing viewer is left with the feeling that significant amounts of the carefully-scripted sign dialogue are passing them by, and the deaf viewer that their language is not worthy of interpretation. In this era of cinematic accessibility, with audio description and closed-caption subtitling a significant part of the experience of cinema for those with sensory disabilities, this seems a problematic choice. If sign language has the same legal status as spoken languages (as it now does in many East-European nations), surely it should be subtitled as a matter of course?

The Tribe is certainly a film worth watching, both for its overturning of the sensory conventions of narrative cinema, and for the compelling performances of its young deaf leads, particularly Grygoriy Fesenko and Yana Novikova. Yet the intensely violent portrayal of the deaf community as beyond the bounds of humanity or morality raises ethical questions and concerns that are troubling, to say the least. The final scenes, which see a rape, a violent assault, and four young deaf men murdered in cold blood, show a deep ambivalence to the value, and even the humanity, of deaf lives. Fifty years after Two in Love, a realistic portrayal of deaf people in post-Soviet film has yet to materialize.

*Names are given as they appear in the film’s English-language titles, which differ slightly in their transliteration from the Library of Congress system

Claire Shaw
University of Bristol

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Works Cited

Baulin, V. and I. Razdorskii (1965), “Dvoe,” Zhizn’ glukhikh 7: 13.

Proshkin, Maksim. 2013. “Glukhie poimut moi fil’m bole tochno,” Interview with Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Vestnik VOG [Vserossiiskoe obshchestvo glukhikh], 13 August.

Mazaev, Evgenii. 2015. “‘Plemya’ glazami glukhogo cheloveka,” Vestnik VOG [Vserossiiskoe obshchestvo glukhikh] 4 March. 

The Tribe, Ukraine, 2014
Color, 131 minutes
Director: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Screenplay: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Cinematography: Valentyn Vasyanovych
Editing: Valentyn Vasyanovych
Sound: Sergiy Stepanskyi
Production design: Vlad Oduenko
Costume design: Olena Gres
Cast: Grygoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Roza Babiy, Oleksandr Dziadevych, Oleksandr Osadchyi, Ivan Tyshko, Oleksandr Sidelnikov, Oleksandr Panivan, Kyryl Koshyk, Tetyana Radchenko, Lyudmyla Rudenko, Maryna Panivan
Producers: Olena Slaboshpytska, Valentyn Vasyanovych, Iya Myslytska
Production: Garmata Film

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy: The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)

reviewed by Claire Shaw© 2015