I had major trepidation before viewing The Tribe. Between Andy’s numerous warnings in every post leading up to Wednesday night, to his long introduction before the film, where I believe he said “challenging”, “difficult to watch” and “prepare yourselves” more than he jumped around, this was Serious Film Viewing. My seat partner and I sighed resignedly at least 4 times before the film began, readying ourselves.
And to think I had to review such a film, well, you’ll forgive the fact that I’m on my second beer as I’m typing this.
Before viewing, Andy read the “Rules and Regulations” for showing The Tribe, which came from the filmmakers. We were asked not to make any sounds at all. Even the servers were asked to use hand gestures to communicate with their tables, and encouraged to remove their shoes. The filmmakers wanted us to experience this film wholly and without distraction; reason being, The Tribe is filmed in Ukraine with deaf actors who use Ukrainian sign language. There are no voice-overs, no subtitles, no music. Consequently I was a titch lost in a lot of the plot developments, as I do not know Ukrainian sign language.
The film is set in modern day Ukraine, and I say that lightly, because there didn’t seem to be a lot of modernity in Ukraine. A young man, Sergey, is waiting for a bus on a busy city street, where we see a bus shelter, and also a burned out car next to it. The whole tone and color of the movie is dark and bland; we never see a cell phone and only once see a laptop.
Sergey is making his way to a new boarding school, where he arrives a bit late. He misses the opening remarks by the Headmaster as well as the parade around the courtyard of the teachers and students. The whole scene gives the impression that this is a Happy Boarding School (an oxymoron if there ever was one), where happy young students and dedicated teachers are Happy every day of their lives.
Sergey goes to the Headmaster’s office, where he has a long conversation with her. The audience is completely in the dark about this conversation since, I am assuming, very few of us know USL . He is shown to his dorm by a male student, who makes him strip to his underwear. Based on the body language, it appears as if Sergey is being checked to see if he does drugs, since he holds out both arms for inspection as well as his feet and every other inch of himself. Satisfied, the boy allows Sergey to dress (a note here about scenes and their length; we are shown everything in every scene- when Sergey gets re-dressed, we see him struggle with each sock, then his pants, then his belt buckle, then his shirt, then his sweatshirt, then his coat, the one shoe, then the other shoe…you get the idea. Nearly every scene is the movie is this way- from walking down hallways to climbing stairs to sex scenes. The audience experiences every single moment. I was reminded of Inarritu’s use of the long tracking shot in Birdman, but it wasn’t as well done here).
Once Sergey is settled, we see him getting acclimated to this Happy Boarding School, which reveals itself to be anything but. From the crumbling buildings to the graffiti covered walls to the dilapidated playground, this place is a shit-hole (don’t get me started on the bathrooms!). Sergey soon falls in with the Tribe, whose members pretty much rule the school (and not like the Pink Ladies). Sergey quickly assimilates into this group, becoming their enforcer for errant children who steal without permission and fight amongst themselves. They are all thugs, thieves, and humongous bullies. The Tribe also runs a prostitution ring with two of the female students, as we see a van driving the ladies to the local truck stop (evidently the lore of truck stops is global). The pimp of the Tribe knocks on cab windows until he finds willing customers. The girls do not seem to mind their job, which is troubling. They eagerly get dressed for work and helped each other put on makeup, chattering amiably with each other while waiting for their Johns.
We are first introduced to the shocking violence pervasive throughout this film: as the pimp is waiting in the truck stop parking lot for his gals to finish up, he is run over by a backing truck. He has his back to the truck and can’t hear it coming. This scene and all the scenes of violence were notable for their lack of noise or any extraneous sound- there is no doomsday music, no sound effects dude throwing in a “WHACK!” during a punch, there is no “HUHUMPH!!” when someone gets kicked in the gut.
Poor Sergey finds himself falling for Anya, one of the hookers, which begins his undoing. The rest of the film details the quick downward spiral of Sergey.
At the beginning of this movie I wanted to empathize with Sergey. I felt the despair and loneliness he must have had starting at a new school. His classmates were awful to him: waking him up in the middle of his first night and kicking him out of his room, making him sleep in the hallway with his pathetic suitcase beside him; making him strip; frequently batting him upside the head without warning; even pitting him in a fight against one of the Tribe, seemingly to test his toughness. The feeling I had was visceral; the ache in this kid seemed so deep. Sadly, this empathy didn’t last long, as Sergey became exactly like his schoolmates and eventually worse- cold, unfeeling and stunningly merciless.
WARNING: SPOILERS AND DESPCRIPTIONS OF HORRIFIC VIOLENCE
Anya gets pregnant, which would obviously interfere with her job, so she gets an abortion from the local abortionist. This sketchy looking woman has a long metal box where she keeps her tools. She “sterilizes” them by placing the box on her burner, for literally 45 seconds. She trusses the poor girl up with her feet by her ears on a narrow board placed over the bathtub, and then we get to witness the entire event (or if you were me, you witnessed it between your splayed fingers, horrified).
Anya is not fazed however, as we see her in the next scene walking around with her bestie, smiling and signing animatedly. At one point Sergey (who I don’t think knows about the abortion; again she may have signed it to him but I’m not sure), in his confused and violent state, wakes her up and rapes her, which again, we see in heartbreaking long, jaw dropping detail. His sudden rage at her is not explained.
What follows is a complicated and startling string of scenes: one of the teachers (who also happens to be the driver of the hooker-mobile) tries to help the girls get passports so they can go to Italy. Sergey is not hip to this idea, and proceeds to destroy his girlfriend’s passport. In turn, the Tribe members pummel Sergey, ending with them pushing his face underwater in a sink and slamming a bottle on the back of his heads again this is filmed without sound effects or Hollywood fan fare. It serves to make the scene utterly and shockingly horrific.
Once would think things couldn’t get worse but the next scene Sergey, who is miraculously not dead, avenges his beating- he slowly makes his way into each of the boy’s dorm rooms, where they are sleeping, and slams each of their nightstands down onto their skulls. He then walks out of the dorm, and the movie is over.
The central question that has plagued me since seeing this film is, why do we go to the movies? Certainly, to be entertained (the 100 Year Old Man, Singin’ in the Rain, Inside Out), to be informed and educated (Hotel Rwanda, Schindler’s List, every documentary ever made), to get scared (Psycho, Friday the 13th, Birds). I could not come up with a reason for this film. Because a large segment of the viewing population would be unable to discern any back story (the deaf residents of Ukraine surely had a leg up on us all), we were deprived of sympathizing with these characters. I tried. I wanted to understand. I came up short.
I will say I was most definitely affected by this film: my face felt numb for hours after it was over. I had no words. When I got home and went to kiss the sleepy, sweaty cheeks of my daughters as they lay sleeping, I felt stung by my normal, suburban life.
The saddest part of this movie is when Sergey showed caring (not wanting his girlfriend to work anymore, indicating to her it would all be ok if she stayed and let him put a ring on her finger), he was viciously attacked for it. And he immediately let that caring part of his heart dry up and eliminated his tormentors. Had he been abused all his life? Had he needed to leave his previous school because he had been bullied, and this was his breaking point? I’ll never know, and therefore I was robbed of the chance to FEEL for this character. It seems as if the point of this film was to see how much the viewer could endure in this violent, silent world. This is not why I go to the movies.