Imagine being a filmmaker; one desperately in search of violence. It doesn’t quite matter what the violence is, as long as it is something vaguely provocative, something that will make the unlucky viewer think, “Ah, jeez, that’s bad.” So you find sex workers, you find violent students, you find death, you find abortion, you find rape. You present it all in the most cold and detached manner possible – removing dialogue, removing subtitles – and beg for the attention of your subject, without ever quite getting close enough to allow these subjects to come across as anything more than animals. Intentional or not, it’s this kind of feeling that echoes through every pore of Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe, making it a hard watch with no real payoff whatsoever.
The Tribe initially sounds like a wild good time for anyone seeking out off-kilter art nowadays. After all, who wouldn’t be thrilled by the concept of a film entirely told in Ukrainian sign-language with no subtitles.1 It’s the kind of concept that forces the audience into a position that they’ve likely never been in: interpreter without the skills needed to interpret. By the end of the film, one remains fascinated by this concept, accompanied by all the techniques you’d expect from someone well-versed in European cinema. Every scene in the film is a long take, never dropping under 60 seconds – if not much longer, as the first is made up of 34 shots – and feeling endless at times. These long takes occasionally result in some very cool scenes, one of which is a showcase of unabashed sexuality and casual discussion afterward (seen above) that feels natural when compared to every other beat within. What once felt natural at the start soon becomes a tiresome repetition, and the realization dawns upon one that documenting the most monotonous actions in a film that so wants to boast shock factor is, well, stupid.
Worse yet, Slaboshpitsky draws from every filmmaker he can here – unsurprising for a feature debut – in a way that’s both fascinating and amateurish. The two filmmakers he’s most indebted to for this feature are Cristian Mungiu and Michael Haneke. After exploring the way one young deaf man falls into line with the deaf sex workers and deaf pimp students in his school, The Tribe slips into a strangely uncomfortable but familiar territory that Mungiu once tackled in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The problem here is that, without an ounce of character building (with or without dialogue), everything about the climactic scene that this comparison totes along (I’m being sensitive with spoilers) feels exploitative.
And much of The Tribe feels exploitative at best (and at times misogynistic at worst) with its cold and observational gaze. It’s the kind of detachment that sometimes works for Haneke and sometimes doesn’t, depending on the narrative he’s working with. But Slaboshpitsky never bothered to write a story that wasn’t meant to simply document meaningless cruelty. It’s an empty experience, one that does nothing to explore the experience of what being deaf is like, but, rather, exploits the concept of a lack of sound by only utilizing sound when wanting to make the audience squirm. This isn’t to say that films with no empathy for their characters are inherently bad, but brutality for brutality’s sake eventually leaves one so dumb, all that there’s left to do is laugh at the sheer foolishness of it all. It’s arguable that The Tribe could benefit from subtitles, though I doubt it’d change much, as the tiresome notion of shock over substance would still remain.
A friend once questioned, with regards to Gaspar Noé’s work, whether or not a film could actually be good when it was meant to be a purposely painful experience to sit through. I used to believe that yes, it could be, and I still do. But sitting through over two hours of The Tribe has made me realize that there’s nothing worse than being forced to experience something that only exists to get a rise out of its audience without even once contemplating why it was doing so in the first place.
1Actually, a lot of people wouldn’t be thrilled, but I was full of excitement when I entered this film, which makes the disappointment all the harder to bear.
Directed by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky; written by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky; starring Grigoriy Fesenko and Yana Novikova; 132 minutes.
The Tribe is playing in limited theaters. It opens in Miami exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on July 24th.