MAY 2, 2015
THE UKRAINIAN FILM The Tribe (in wide release in the US on June 15, 2015) is a powerful and grim feature film about a school and institution for young deaf teenagers. Within the washed-out, defaced, and crumbling walls of a Soviet-style building (actually built by prisoners of war), an inner group of deaf kids, aided by corrupt teachers at the school, trades in drugs, theft, and prostitution. Into this sordid scene comes a shy young man who is ritually hazed and then taken into the crime ring. He develops an attachment to one of the girls who is prostituted by the mostly male “tribe.” And that’s when the already dreadful scene begins to become even more threatening. Notably and remarkably, the only language used throughout the film is Ukrainian Sign Language — without subtitles.
It’s hard to find an equivalent film that is this bleak and visually stark. From the prison’s barrack-like setting (which makes the prison in Orange Is the New Black look like a country club) to the garbage-strewn deteriorating streets, apartments, and truck stops (which make Clockwork Orange look like a set in Singing in the Rain), the physical environment mirrors the stripped-down and emotionless brutality of the criminal students. All this is filmed by veteran documentary cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych with a slow, long, European style pacing. Vasyanovych often shoots with a haunting and roving 3-axis stabilizer that continues the relentless effect of the overall dire mood of the film.
The film raises a lot of questions and has, in my opinion, a lot to offer. The first question raised is the most obvious — why shoot an entire film exclusively in Ukrainian Sign Language? And why not use captions? There can’t be very many people in the world, hearing or deaf, who can understand with fluency the dialogue in the film. It’s a bit like filming in Tagalog without providing subtitles. While hearing critics have described the use of sign language in this film as balletic or gestural, within Deaf studies such comparisons are invalid. For many years, sign language was considered purely a gestural language and therefore inferior to spoken language. Even the Modern Language Association had grouped ASL into the category of “invented languages,” along with Native American signs and Klingon. It was only through the work of Deaf linguists that the complexity and syntactic structure of ASL and other sign languages were recognized as being equivalent to any spoken language. Sign language is a language, and so the question remains: Why not caption it? When was the last time you saw a foreign film in the original language with no captions?
One answer is that director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy may have wanted to create a situation where the hearing audience would be outsiders. It’s a turn-around-as-fair-play strategy. In the hearing world, it is always Deaf people who are the linguistic outsiders. Now the audience is locked out of the language swirling in front of their eyes. As for their ears, there is no non-diegetic sound and almost no sound at all other than the occasional grunt or intake of air.
But even for Deaf people, the Ukrainian Sign Language is not lingua franca. Ted Evans, a British Deaf filmmaker said, “As BSL users, us Brits were in the same position as hearing people, as not all of us could understand the signs. We had to rely on the visuals and the performances to tell us the story just like everyone else.” The issue presented immediately and problematically from the beginning of the film is: what is the role of language in cinema? Slaboshpytskiy has apparently been fascinated by silent films and wanted to recreate the perceptual world of the audience before talkies when everyone in the audience was perceptually deaf. Indeed, that was a time when there was no difference between deaf and hearing audiences. The film The Artist also played with this idea in a much more aesthetically driven manner, culminating in the moment when the silent film is filled with sound to the distress of the main character. But no such metacritical moment occurs in The Tribe. This is a film whose aesthetic is built into its compelling but aesthetically unpleasing structure. There is no “aha!” moment for the audience to revel in.
With everyone watching the film rendered deaf, as Evans noted, we have to exercise an increased sense of visual awareness. We have to suss out the situations, guess at the dialogue, problem-solve, and become more sensitive to our emotional intelligence. In other words, we have to work at paying visual attention to the film — all behaviors familiar to Deaf people in the hearing world. This is heightened film-watching. The film in effect says to us, I am not the kind of film you just sit back and watch, passively waiting for the thrills and the tears to arrive.
The Tribe doesn’t comfortably invite you into its world. You watch always from outside. The long takes, the in-group rituals, the repulsive environment and subject matter are designed to keep the viewer exteriorized for as long as possible. Yet the trick of the film is to eventually let you in very slowly, not completely, but just enough to grasp the essentials. The main character, who is never our surrogate, is at least accessible from a plot point of view because he is the new boy on the violent block. His emotion of desire for one of the prostitute girls is legible. And as it dawns on us that a much worse fate is awaiting these women, although they rush to it like the lost souls in Dante willingly seek their appropriate circle in Hell, we understand the outcast boy’s desperation to save the one for whom he has feelings. So there’s enough film syntax and archetypal plot to allow us to know one aspect of the narrative.
But the film raises a larger question. The title The Tribe signals to us instantly that Deaf people are regarded as primitives. And indeed in the film, especially without the nuance of language, we are thrown into a world of gesture and grunts — a survival of the fittest world, where sex is crudely taken and violence is part of the daily wages. This film would then be only the latest in many depictions of Deaf people as uneducated, impoverished, animal-like, and voiceless. As many historians of the Deaf, notably Douglas Baynton, Christopher Krentz, and Jennifer Esmail have pointed out, the whole goal of 19th century deaf education was to “civilize” Deaf people; bring them out of savagery and into civilization and spoken language. Hearing society wanted Deaf people to try to become hearing by giving up sign language and adopting speech. Films like Truffaut’s The Wild Child, Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and even Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker have done the work of showing that transformation or lack of such. In the 21st century, to portray the Deaf as primitives is certainly problematic.
On the other hand, we might ask: when can an oppressed group be shown in less than uplifting images? As part of counteracting the oppression of the past, it has been incumbent on filmmakers to portray members of exploited groups in a positive light. For example, when we show slavery in a contemporary film, we must identify with the nobility of the slave and despise the brutality of the owners. We must show that women are strong and assertive, not weak and passive. Gays and queers now no longer are depicted as carrying a secret shame, but are proud and out about their sexuality. The audience can’t be confused about the differences between the oppressor and the oppressed for the neoliberal politics of diversity to work.
But at what point in a liberation movement is it acceptable to portray an oppressed group in negative ways? In a television show like The Wire, we see African Americans in Baltimore largely portrayed as drug dealers and violent criminals. That is a stereotype, but one that we are willing now to accept because within that group are protagonists who seek to live a moral life given the hand they have been dealt. Indeed, the criminal organization parallels the police force, which itself is corrupt and violent, but also has morally complex characters who strive to find an ethical life within the degraded structure in which they work.
Is it time now for a film about Deafness to show us this negative image in the aftermath of Deaf political activism? Another way of asking this — is it ableist or audist to assume that Deaf people must be protected from negative portrayals? Certainly we have a slew of normative films about non-disabled characters who are allowed to do bad things, to be seen as crassly sexual, randomly violent, and the like. From Breaking Bad to Mad Men to Homeland, we are more comfortable with showing heroes and heroines who reach deep into their inner darkness. So if that is the case with normative films, why do we hesitate to show that same darkness in people with disabilities? How many times does Marlee Matlin have to play an uplifting Deaf woman?
Of course there is a long history of disabled characters who are villains. How many one-armed, limping, one-eyed, blinded, disfigured characters do you need to prove that disability has been used for years as the semiological signal of evil and malevolence in the history of film? If we now chose deliberately, and with the knowledge of how problematic that portrayal has been, to show disabled people as evil or dark, are we just continuing that prejudicial viewpoint or are we in fact opposing it?
Is it too soon to show us a group of violent, primitive, poor, and unredeemed Deaf characters in a film? Or is it too late not to have shown such? Without giving away The Tribe’s ending, I can say that if the viewer is hoping for a happy ending, a redemption and moral rectitude, that isn’t going to happen. The film uses the trope of showdown at high noon to frame its penultimate scene: the good man pushed to the moral limit facing off against evil. But unlike the western with its decorous and choreographed ritual of the duel, this film ends in the spirit it began. The climactic moment is rather the culmination of the evil banality the film has portrayed all along. You won’t be disabused of the vision of the tribe or even its outcasts as anything less than representative of what is dark, malevolent, and primitive in the human race.
Another way of thinking about all this, which this film forces us to confront, is do we want films to provide a moral compass for us or rather to spin us around blindfolded and without direction? It’s a larger question about the role of art in society. Although a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino is best known for highlighting brutality and violence, his recent films Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained use violence to further a revenge plot in which Jews or African Americans can justly revolt against their brutal oppressors. Ultimately it doesn’t matter to Tarantino’s viewers how violent things are because the horrors are directed against Nazis and racist slaveholders. We can leave the theater feeling that we got strong medicine, but it was curative. Our moral compasses remain fixed on the lodestone of collective agreement.
With a film like The Tribe, we don’t get the moral compass, and the oppressed group — the Deaf — isn’t the victim but the perpetrator. Our ethical directionality is plunged into a tailspin. Like our position as outsiders trying to understand a language we can never fathom, as visitors to a group we would never want to be part of, we can’t sign on to the moral world of Ukrainian criminals or even to the viewpoint of the outsider. Such films feel difficult to watch because we are not given a preassigned narrative about what is right or wrong, nor are we set straight at the end. There’s not even a moment of relief in the film where you get to laugh or cry. There’s no sense of relaxation or pleasure in its sexual scenes, which are filmed in master shots that distance us from what is either brutal or mechanical or both. You have no place to claim as your own. But, perhaps, that is the proper role of art. Not to proclaim or simplify but to confuse and make difficult. If you come out of a film with everyone agreeing, then one might say the film is a failure. If you come out dazed, confused, and then ready to argue, that film deserves praise (but will probably never get an Oscar).
While I would expect some portion of Deaf people to object to this film on the grounds that it demeans the Deaf and simply reproduces stereotypes, I think the film does so much more than that. Crucially, Slaboshpytskiy has made history with a million euro independent film about Deafness using exclusively Deaf actors. As Evans notes, such funds are not generally available for films about Deaf people: “We don’t have the resources and the budgets we desperately need to have in order to raise standards.” That kind of budget is only available for films like Children of a Lesser God, in which the hearing audience knows exactly what to feel and think about the relationship between Marlee Matlin and William Hurt, with the awkward convention of Hurt repeating in speech for “us” what Matlin signs. Those films are Viking Cruises into the world of the other designed for the paying tourist. Indeed, films and plays about Deafness are generally for the hearing “us,” not the Deaf “us.” But The Tribe bravely or perhaps just stubbornly denies the boundary of “us” and “them.” Less than a tour, it is a plane ride gone wrong; one that drops you in a city you didn’t want to go to and denies you a connecting flight.
The issue of money plays out not only in the economics of making films about out-groups like the Deaf, but also in the subject matter of The Tribe. The milieu of the film is the poorest of the poor. There is only an unrelenting and unsentimentalized view of poverty. All the nonprofessional actors themselves are not only Deaf but are actually from poor backgrounds. The reason these images may not appeal to mainstream Deaf viewers is that the world portrayed is the world from which they are escaping — marginalized, outcast, without money or means — except those taken violently.
The Tribe thus will never be the film you’d take your Deaf children to see to make them feel good about themselves. It might however be the film that your Deaf children will watch when you are not home. It’s a fierce view of life, whether you like that view or not, and as such should be seen, discussed, argued about. Although this may not be a film that Hollywood remembers, it is one you won’t soon forget.