I wasn’t sure I’d like The Tribe. I certainly wanted too, because it sounded like the sort of thing that could be very interesting, but its particular brand of interesting also seemed like a double-edged sword. I was worried the choice the film had made wouldn’t be properly thought through and utilized. The Tribe was shown at Cannes, and started making headlines because of its unique central premise. The film opens with a note explaining that the whole film is in sign language, and that there are no subtitles or other forms of translation. Basically the film is like watching a foreign movie with the subtitles off, except that it’s a deliberate choice.
There are many pretty obvious ways this sort of thing could go awry. The first moments of The Tribe didn’t do much to dampen my worries. Not being able to understand the language of a film has an obvious distancing effect, and my chief concern was that this nature wouldn’t be properly accounted for. The first moments played this distance up, with a camera that stayed back from the action and crept around and stalked the protagonist, spying on him through windows and from around corners. This was then compounded by long takes. I was concerned that such a style would mean that my interest would start to wane after a while. After all the film is two hours long. Now I have no problem with long slow movies, but that time needs to be filled with something. That’s not to say there needs to be plot in the long quiet moments of a film, but there should be tone or thematic information. Several of my favourite movies are long and slow, but still densely packed with theme and tone. I had pegged The Tribe as not quite living up to these standards.
Turns out my fears were in vain and The Tribe is pretty excellent. For one thing, after those initial moments, the film eases up on the voyeuristic cinematography. It never gives up on it completely, because everything about this film’s concept and subject matter calls for a voyeuristic touch, but it softens it a bit. Which is almost inevitable, but it’s hard to overstate just how much more information is conveyed in this film when the camera is closer. Suddenly the timbre people are signing in becomes akin to tone of voice and helps establish character traits and character dynamics. Little snide side conversations and sneaky glances become visual and communicative and, while the film still functionally holds the audience at an arm’s breadth, it’s amazing what can be interpreted from that distance. Rarely does a scene pass that feels confusing, at most it’s mysterious, and swiftly contextualized by later scenes.
The entire film is stylistically constant and interesting. The filmmaking is clearly concerned with hiding the camera. There aren’t too many notable camera moves or edits. In a lot of ways, The Tribe seems to hold the “every cut is a lie” mantra close to its heart, favouring functionally undemonstrative following shots and long static takes. It works well with the language barrier, creating a simultaneous feeling of realism and distance. It serves the tone functionally, creating a distinctly sombre, real feeling that any other visual style would have undercut. It doesn’t distance you to the point of boredom, or disinterest, but instead maintains an intellectual curiosity and slowly allows you to forget you’re watching a film.
The style does a good job of hiding how impressive some of the camerawork is. Many of the shots are incredibly well framed, and a few of the following shots are absolutely phenomenal. My personal favourite might be the film’s final following shot, which pulls double duty as the movie’s final shot. I might favour it because of the content, if I was to be perfectly honest, but it’s still a great shot. It manages to follow for a long time without any real slack portions or clumsy movements, which can be quite hard indeed. The camera gently creates the illusion that you’re stalking the protagonist, following him like a white rabbit.
The entire movie is a bit of a rabbit hole. You follow the main character into his particular wonderland. Except instead of hookah smoking caterpillars and disappearing cats there are muggings and prostitution. The film follows the main character as he starts attending an all-deaf school. He’s quickly accepted by his classmates. Or rather, quickly hired. He’s ushered into an alley by a weaselly kid who makes him strip, seemingly checking him for recording devices or signs of ill intent. I say seemingly for obvious reasons. I’m interpreting a scene where one guy makes another carry bags into an alley, then gets told to strip. Afterwards he becomes involved in the almost dystopian school’s resident gang. It seems like a fair interpretation, although I’m not sure what sort of recording device would be effective in this rather unique situation.
After this he gets to meet the guys above him. At first they kick him out of their room and generally haze him. They even arrange a fight, that at first seems like it might be real, but later seems like it was a test of our protagonist’s fighting abilities. He’s got a few moves, and lasts a pretty long time against three or four other guys. These are the more prominent members of the school’s gang; we see them prostituting their female classmates in one scene. An adult clearly involved in organizing the gang drives them to a trucker filled parking lot. One of the gang members takes the two girls and they go truck to truck banging on the glass of the cab. When a driver gets out he’s handed a little piece of paper, presumably with a cost written on it, pays, and takes his choice of girl back to the cab. It’s these thugs who test our protagonist and begin to include him in their fairly small scale criminal activities. Once they’ve tested his mettle they begin to test him by including him in their smaller crimes.
First they follow someone leaving a liquor store and mug and beat him in a park. Our protagonist gives him a few good kicks that nicely demonstrate his commitment. It’s here, in a worn out playground, that the protagonist begins to flirt with one of the two prostituted girls, an act that will eventually prove his undoing. That’s in the long run however – to begin with it seems like the protagonist is having a right time helping these thugs with their crimes. They ride a train (under the guise of doing some sort of deaf charity work) and mug a passenger. They extort their fellow students for money. And they pay it all to the groundskeeper-type figure who seems to be the orchestrator of the whole affair. It’s fairly grim business, although the protagonist seems to relish it, ever so slightly. He might have been reticent to kick that first victim, but soon he’s mugging train riders and flipping kids upside down and shaking their pocket change loose with the best of them. While I’d never go so far as to say the movie makes any of this look fun, it certainly makes it seem satisfying. Maybe it’s an emergent Scorsese-esque rise to power my brain is using to fill the quiet.
That might be an over simplification, but there’s certainly a self-destructive fall that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Scorsese film. The protagonist’s life changes quite by accident when the gang member responsible for running the girls dies. It’s a chilling scene. He stands with his back to the trucks, in the dark, and is slowly run over by a truck that didn’t see him. He’s deaf and mute, so he can’t hear the glowing truck approaching, and he can’t shout for the driver to stop. It’s a hard death to watch. Afterwards our protagonist gets to fill the killed gang member’s role and sell the girls to the truck drivers. After looking away from the girl he fancies getting shagged, our protagonist comes to a rather damning decision. He pays the girl to sleep with him, which they do, for a long chunk of screen time. Maybe unnecessarily so, but let’s not go there at this moment in time. The dynamics of this scene are a little hazy, however it’s clear our protagonist is making unusual requests in an attempt to generate some intimacy. What happens, however, is that he becomes attached.
And so the next time he goes to take the girls out he can’t bear to watch a truck driver despoil his sweet and drags the two girls back to the van kicking and signing. That’s all it takes for our protagonist’s colleagues to turn on him. He gets beaten and kicked from his room. That’s just the start, however, as events get much, much worse from there on. I’d rather not spoil much more, so from now on I’ll slide into the territory of general description. Suffice it to say there’s a colossally grim fall from power at this point.
It’s this portion of the film that really won me over if I’m being perfectly honest. The rest of the film was good, filled with interesting characters and tone, but this portion was bleak and ugly and filled with weltschmerz. I like my movies confrontationally ugly and morbid at times, and The Tribe’s later portions certainly fit that particular bill. I suppose you could say that the rest of the movie was something I found myself admiring, but the last portion was something I found myself enjoying. Which will seem particularly misguided to anyone who has seen the film.
The unflinching horror and violence reminds me of Only God Forgives a bit, which is part of why I liked it. I feel it belongs to a similar camp. Only God Forgives bears the telltale stamp of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Cannibal Holocaust influence, and I could see a similar sort of influence at work in The Tribe. It’s the macabre blunt force instrument that is cinéma vérité. Cinéma vérité is concerned with fly-on-the-wall observational perspectives and lack of context. No narrations, only what you can perceive from your voyeuristic perspective. It should be fairly obvious why The Tribe feels like it belongs to this camp, with its distancing, lack of communication, and similarly voyeuristic nature. It also bears the mark of cinéma vérité in a few other ways. The simplistic camera work, the grim realities of the world, and the invisible editing and lighting. The film is not true cinéma vérité, as that term is technically meant to be used in reference to documentaries, but it bears the telltale sign of its influence, same as Only God Forgives and Cannibal Holocaust. This style and this content make for an extraordinary pair.
I was worried the sign language only film about a deaf school would be overly reliant on its gimmick, and that it wouldn’t have properly thought through the effect of its language choices. On some level I was also concerned it might stray into corny, preachy territory. Instead The Tribe is a stupendous film. Not only is it shockingly, gloriously, brutal but its stylistic choices are all perfectly contextualized when the movie is viewed as a holistic whole. The lack of an understandable language elegantly works with the fly-on-the-wall perspective frequently suggested by cinéma vérité to create a single tonal effect. The movie casts the audience as a voyeuristic fly incapable of even understanding human language. It makes this audience-as-a-fly watch these grim scenarios in semi-comprehension, which somehow makes the acts displayed feel more raw, more surreal, and more disturbing. In many ways it’s a singularly unique film in effect. Perhaps most telling is the fact that when I sat up from watching The Tribe and rejoined the everyday world the sound of human voices was the strangest thing I had ever heard.