Issue 48 (2015)
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy: The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)
reviewed by Vitaly Chernetsky© 2015
The Tribe, Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s first feature-length film, opens with a statement: “This film is in sign language. There are no translations, no subtitles, no voice-over.” Set in a boarding school for the hard-of-hearing, this film is a bold experiment. Drawing on prior ground-breaking films ranging from Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1929), in its search for purely cinematic narrative tools, to the unflinching bleak realism of Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile, 2007), the film is nevertheless startlingly original. The Tribe premiered at the Critics’ Week at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Nespresso Grand Prize, the Gan Foundation Support for Distribution Prize, and the France 4 Visionary Award. Since then, the film went on to win more than thirty other awards, including Discovery of the Year at the 2014 European Film Awards. Controversially, The Tribe was bypassed for Ukraine’s official submission for the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category in favor of The Guide (Povodyr, 2014), a patriotic drama directed by Oles Sanin and set in Soviet Ukraine during the Stalin-era terror, which did not make the shortlist. This decision has led to a heated ongoing debate about the procedures of selecting Ukraine’s nominees for the Oscars.
While this is his first full-length film, Slaboshpytskiy, born in 1974, is a seasoned director with five acclaimed shorts to his name, most notably Deafness (Hlukhota, 2010) and Nuclear Waste (Iaderni vidkhody, 2012), both of which have received several international festival awards. In fact, the success of Deafness, also focused on the hard-of-hearing community, led to the director winning a grant from the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund for the title under review, while the success of Nuclear Waste, set in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, as well as of The Tribe, led to Slaboshpytskiy receiving another grant for his next full-length feature (working title: Luxembourg) from Hubert Bals Fund, and winning a Sundance Institute Global Filmmaking Award; the project has also sold to Alpha-Violet.
The director’s late career surge and the production’s reliance on grants from international non-profit funders testifies to the continuous, precarious state of Ukraine’s film industry. While the country has produced in the post-Soviet era a number of shorts that went on to win major awards at world festivals (including two Palmes D’Or at Cannes), it struggled to complete and release full-length features that would successfully reach an international audience, until The Tribe finally broke through this glass ceiling. Slaboshpytskiy personally, and on many occasions, criticized harshly the stagnant world of Ukraine’s state cinema institutions that until recently remained unreformed, with most of the nation’s cinematic successes occurring not because, but rather in spite of state policies. Paradoxically, the early 2010s, while overall a very bleak period for Ukrainian society as a whole, resulted in a boost for the film industry, as by a lucky accident several younger and reform-minded enthusiasts who sought to reform state film agencies suddenly were given relative freedom to do so; the reform momentum has continued, albeit with fits and starts, since the start of the Euromaidan, although the crisis and the war in the east of Ukraine have taken a severe toll on the country as a whole, and brought a temporary halt to many of the projects in the film industry in particular.
Filmed mostly during the winter of 2013-2014, coinciding with the early weeks of the Euromaidan, and featuring a cast of non-professional actors from the Ukrainian and Belarusian hard-of-hearing communities, The Tribe can be seen as a commentary on the problematic state of pre-Euromaidan Ukraine, with pervasive corruption thoroughly corroding the society. Although this is a widespread problem throughout the post-Soviet region, critics noted one feature in particular that distinguishes this film from cinematic products of neighboring countries. It has perhaps been best summed up by the Russian critic Andrei Plakhov, who in a recent article contrasted The Tribe with Zviagintsev’s Leviathan (Plakhov 2015). Both films draw upon American intertexts: Zviagintsev noted that a real-life incident that took place in Colorado in 2004 became his initial inspiration; Slaboshpytskiy compared the basic plot of his film to a classic Western, in that a new man comes to town, falls in love with the local gang leader’s girlfriend, and rises up against the status quo (Zviagintsev 2014; Slaboshpytskiy 2014). But Zviagintsev transformed the American story of rebellion into a story of catastrophic defeat, while The Tribe, for Plakhov, is “a dramatic story of love and rebellion, an anti-totalitarian parable about violence and freedom” which in his opinion recalls Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, turned into a film by Miloš Forman in 1975.
The Tribe became a labor of love for its small, tightly knit cast and crew. The casting took a long time and drew upon the hard-of-hearing communities at social networks, as well as reaching out to traditional institutions inherited from the Soviet era. Ukraine’s leading company distributing international innovative cinema, Arthouse Traffic, backed the production, one of its few attempts to support and nurture domestic filmmaking. Valentyn Vasyanovych, a noted director in his own right, but previously known for more traditional filmmaking, served as cinematographer and editor. The film is characterized by long takes, most of them lasting at least several minutes. The dispassionate, seemingly objective camera observes the action from a distance, as in the opening sequence where we watch the action from across a wide street with heavy traffic. The camera switches back and forth from a static position to following the characters, usually in medium close-up and often from the back—yet it never turns away at uncomfortable moments. No music accompanies the film; we hear only natural sounds of the urban environments where it is set.
While the acting might look improvised to some, the director insisted that all the scenes and dialogue were tightly scripted and learned by the actors; however, we are watching this dialogue without translation and are thus forced to rely on extra-linguistic markers for meaning. The director thus turns tables on the society’s majority, as the inability to follow the dialogue is a problem with which the hard-of-hearing have to struggle outside their communities. The film does not exoticize or pity its characters, although it clearly abhors the discrimination they face in society. Their story is increasingly universalized as the narrative progresses—yet we also get an intimate glimpse into the life of a community that is usually closed off and wary of outsiders.
Despite its length, the film does not come off as slow; rather, it gives us a deep immersion into its characters’ world, focusing in particular on the male and female protagonists, whose names we learn only from the final credits. While much of the content is shocking—including graphic scenes of violence, sex, and abortion—this content is neither gratuitous nor seeking to thrill the viewers. We get life, warts and all, but rather than proffering a bleak chernukha story, the film rejects hopelessness. Marked by touches of dark humor, it channels defiant rebellion. Thus although it does not directly comment on the events of the Euromaidan, its message can be interpreted, similarly to that of Ukraine’s recent revolution, as an affirmation of personal dignity. Now that the distribution rights have been acquired in more than two dozen countries, including much of Europe and the US, The Tribe’s important message is guaranteed to reach a wide international audience.
*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
University of Kansas
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Kartsev, Nikita (2014), “Andrei Zviagintsev—o ‘Leviafane’, vodke, mate i vlasti,” Moskovskii komsomolets 24 May.
Plakhov, Andrei (2015), “Zhestokost’ na iazyke zhestov,” Kommersant 19 February.
Slaboshpytskiy, Myroslav (2014), “Investytsii v kinematohraf ne isnuie,” UA Modna, 22 May.
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 Vitaly Chernetsky© 2015