I have to admit, I went into The Tribe with anxiety and apprehension, not excitement. I knew very little of the film other than that it was out of the Ukraine, that there was no dialogue and that due to graphic violent and sexual content that it could be, would most likely be, “difficult to watch.” I fretted for days in advance because I’d committed to penning a reaction blog; I couldn’t back out. And I couldn’t just show up and eye-cover my way through it. Fact is I am extremely sensitive to violence, suffering or cruelty of any sort, physical or mental. During my school years if someone yelled ‘Fight!’ you could bet that I was running away from, not toward, the ‘action.’ I can’t stand to see or hear fists hitting flesh. (True story: I have yet to watch any more than 10 seconds of that Southpaw trailer.) And any hint of emotional cruelty or bullying, in real life or in fiction, often makes me cry. But I love movies, especially the complex, deep and emotionally gut-wrenching ones. So I’ve adapted.
I am damn near a professional at covering my eyes to avoid uncomfortable scenes, listening my way through anything visually disturbing. Sometimes I even have to block out things that are aurally disturbing, retreat into a full on cocoon, eyes and ears shielded, awaiting a nudge from my husband, Peter, when it’s safe to emerge.
I watched The Tribe. All of it. (Ok, almost all of it. The nightstands … I couldn’t.) I committed to not ‘looking away’ because I wanted to experience the movie as I suspect the director, Myroslav Slaboshpytsky, wanted viewers to: quiet, fully engaged and for the entire two hours – the ones without communication to our advantage.
Slaboshpytsky turned the table masterfully in that regard. With no dialogue or subtitles viewers are left to try to interpret the story and understand what is being communicated entirely through facial expressions, body language and actions. Everything that wasn’t neutral looked like anger to me, and I was completely frustrated from about 10 minutes into the film until well into the next day. Which is exactly how long it took me to realize this: I was frustrated because I was often lost, only able to glean bits and pieces of what was being communicated, tagging along for those long shots down hallways and up close and personal with their sex and violence, yet lagging behind their story, trying to get my bearings. With that realization I shifted from hating the movie to appreciating what Slaboshpytskiy accomplished by plunging viewers into near total silence.
Ultimately, however, I thought that this tactic, while brilliant and effective at putting the viewer at a sensory disadvantage, was also its undoing. Movies are visual stories, and good ones hinge on good plots and strong characters. This group of non-professional deaf actors left nothing on the table, and I hope that they are getting recognition and praise for their work on this film – tough themes, brutal scenes. But characters need context, either back story or the right now story, unfolding as the movie progresses. Otherwise their actions come off as random.
Unfortunately I didn’t think this film had much of a story to tell. And it didn’t develop its characters enough to show us what motivated them. I wish that the director had traded one ride in that van, sputtering into the truck yard in the wee hours for a scene that gave some hint as to why this group of kids was relegated or resigned to these choices. Why did the shop teacher have such power over them? Why did Sergey so readily acquiesce? The tribe’s lives, their living conditions, seemed no better for their troubles — what did they get in return for their crimes?
Unsettling. Raw. Thought provoking. The Tribe was all these things. I recommend it to any fellow movie lover, if only for the experience of simply, literally just ‘watching’ a film. It’s been two full days since the screening, and I am still thinking about it. I’ve avoided reading any reviews or reactions online, so I can’t wait to click ‘Save’ here and get out there to join the discussion. I have questions and need clarification on a few scenes, which normally makes me want to watch a movie again as soon as possible. But that won’t be happening. Once was enough. I’m looking away.