IN 2014, a Ukrainian film called The Tribe (Plemya) swept Cannes and went on to baffle and offend many people because it includes a series of brutal fuckings, beatings, robberies, an on-screen backroom abortion, an extended single-take 69, and the death-by-crushing of a deaf man who is backed over by a truck. According to the Guardian, The Tribe contains “scenes of almost unwatchable squalor”; according to The New York Times, The Tribe’s “weary, dreary hypothesis” is that “people are awful.” The Wall Street Journal describes the “anxious confusion” The Tribe induces, since it proceeds entirely in International Sign Language and contains no subtitles or translations: “… it’s as if we were profoundly deaf, trying to understand what’s going on and trying to break out of isolation.”
One might begin by saying that deafness is likely not a source of “anxious confusion” to Deaf people; one might then proceed to say that the film’s construction is so expert it amounts to a grand optimism and a solace. It contains no verbal language of the kind spoken by most people, but its formal language — not ISL, not any form of represented dialogue but its craftsmanship — is so powerful and complex as to re-emphasize the place of art — in this case, filmic art — alongside violence and politics as a third means of processing and shaping collective life. Its “hypothesis” might thus be phrased as follows: people cannot finally be awful, no matter what they do, if this sort of accomplishment remains possible, and if we can pay those accomplishments the kind of attention they deserve.
Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) becomes a member of a circle of thieves, prostitutes, and pimps at a Kiev boarding school for the deaf. Overseen by the school’s woodshop teacher (Alexander Panivan) and the King, a dark-haired teen with a slightly nicer puffer jacket than the others (Alexander Osadchiy), the members of the tribe hawk contraband tchotchkes on local trains and pimp out two of their female peers, Anya (Vana Novikova) and Svetka (Rosa Babiy) at truck stops. In only 34 scenes — not a single scene was cut from first-time feature-length director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s original screenplay —Sergey arrives at the school, is initiated into the tribe, and falls in love with Anya. She has her own goal: to escape the school and indeed Ukraine entirely. With the help of the woodshop teacher and another administrator, she and Svetka plan to travel to Italy, likely to remain sex workers.
But before anything happens, nothing does. The Tribe opens on a bus stop where an old woman, a middle-aged woman, and a younger woman with a baby wait. No character draws our attention more than any other, or more than a stream of buses coming closer, obscuring the view, moving away with a deep rumble. The scene is long; empty seconds tick by, what feels like minutes worth. We watch, we listen. We are allowed to stare, to experience what it’s like to see without knowing what we’re supposed to see. In American cinema, this might be called boring or confusing or anxiety-inducing. But we should only feel anxiety if our attentions have been so brutalized by convention that we have forgotten that a formally rigorous film will teach us how to watch it, that it may want to prime our attention, to direct it differently than we expect. (As much can already be assumed just from Sergiy Stepanskiy’s sound design. In the absence of any musical score, noise itself becomes articulate, lifting up details we might have missed — the noise of vehicles, footsteps, bicycle wheels in the gravel, tires in slush, soon a ringing bell, a cry of agony, a running faucet.)
In a moment or two a teenager — Sergey — emerges from a pedestrian underpass. The camera registers in no way his arrival, no zoom, no adjustment of the frame. Sergey approaches the middle-aged woman. From where we and the camera sit across the street we see him produce a piece of paper and point to it. He needs directions, just like us; for the next two hours he will be both our surrogate and our guide. The woman speaks to him and he makes a two-handed symbol for deafness, cupping his hands around his ears and shaking his head. Unabashed, she gives him directions by pointing. Sergey responds by echoing one of her gestures, extending one arm, and slipping the other underneath it. He is to go back underground and cross the street using the underpass. The conversation comes to a satisfactory close. Any exclusion the viewer might feel is the result not of linguistic incompetence but of visual occlusion: the buses’ arrival and departure repeatedly cuts us off from Sergey and the woman, reminding us how many human stories are hidden from us by other trajectories — by the other systems, natural or cultural, at work in our environments — and how much effort is required to see anything clearly.
After we receive our directions to the school for the deaf, we go to the school for the deaf, following behind Sergey as he mounts the first of many, many flights of stairs. An irritated cleaning woman motions to Sergey to go around to another door, her mouth moving silently behind the glass. We glimpse the world of the school, its daylight mores, in an awards pageant already underway — Sergey walks into a courtyard just as it finishes, an isolated figure. He is then offloaded by a careless administrator onto Shnyr (Alexander Sidelnikov), a slender, wolfish boy assigned to be his friend. He is sent directly to class and endures a long lesson about European politics. At lunch Shnyr will notice that Sergey is well-built and take him outside to show him off to the King, who has him strip himself so that he can see his physique.
Taken together, the seconds in which Sergey pulls off his sweater and then his shoes and then his jeans and then stands trembling in his underpants, his breath hot in the air, amount to a moment of genius. At least three insights crystallize immediately. The first is characterological: Sergey is an unusually docile person, not simple, not hardened, but uncurious in a way that suggests a depth of prior suffering into which a stone might fall forever without striking bottom. The second is both sociological and characterological: if the other boys stripped Sergey, it would be more difficult for them to use their hands to talk, which offers a glimpse of the specificity of ISL. And while they discuss his fate, Sergey implicates himself in every horror to come; he willingly reduces his being down to its usefulness, shows himself a naked, functionalized bulk. The third insight here is that all bodies in the film will tremble — as Sergey trembles here, pallid and vulnerable and extremely lovely — between the grossness of the body and the beauty of the human form.
After he makes the acquaintance of the tribe, Sergey helps them with a few small tasks, carrying things, bullying other students, robbing locals outside a grocery store near the school. He will eventually fight to prove his usefulness, in a kind of mock gladiatorial combat whose rules are explained very carefully during its opening, as the boys point to their torsos and throats — clever foreshadowing that Sergey will break those rules in order to win. Or does he cheat on accident? Is he only trying to defend himself? We don’t know, and can’t, though all these explanations make their own sense: the sign of excellent storytelling. Sergey secures his place in the tribe, and proves his skill at turning boys upside-down and shaking the change out of their pockets.
In short order, Sergey will meet Anya, the King’s sexual property. Sergey will fuck her, and pay to fuck her, and then rape her while trying to pay her for a fuck. The seemingly transactional psychodrama of their entanglement is at once sordid — or is easy to think of as sordid, as squalor, perhaps because movie audiences (even or especially art house movie audiences) have likely been abstracted far away from the social conditions that produce teenage sex work — and obscure. The specific texture of both their feelings is allowed to remain a relative mystery; it is kept from our consumption. Eventually, Sergey’s possessiveness — or his protectiveness, or his love — will lead him to break the rules of the tribe. He will be thrown out. He will try to save Anya, who doesn’t want saving, and he will walk up up up a long flight of stairs to revenge himself by smashing the heads of four members of the tribe with their own dressers while they sleep.
That scene will always be The Tribe’s most famous precisely for its violence. But precisely because it is also the film’s culmination it challenges us to remember everything that came before and below it, the insuperably aesthetic relationships established between the film’s many parts: the cinematography, by documentary filmmaker Valentyn Vasynovych, the breathtakingly long scenes, the breathless tracking shots that flow like water, only to hang with magisterial calm for minutes on end and then push onward; the joyful multiplication of allusions to and generic subversions of the western and the anthropological film, each with its own mess of oversights and injustices, none of which Slaboshpytskiy accepts precisely because the sheer beauty of his movie discloses at the same moment it encloses them — this being the great ethical strength of all fully realized forms, to bear witness to destruction while defeating, disavowing it.
Once glimpsed, the outlines of The Tribe’s representational principles can be run back and forward through the mind. New features, new constellations reveal themselves in the watching and the remembering. We know the King is the King because he never lights his own cigarettes. We know that something awful will happen to Sergey and that it will involve water because characters tend to leave the water running, in various kitchens and bathrooms. They miss the aural cue a hearing person might notice they don’t catch. We know that despite the fact that these characters never use their mouths for speaking that mouths — and ways of using mouths — will draw us through the plot as much as the plot itself. On the way to turn a trick, in the midst of a storm of teasing and complaining, Anya will kiss her best friend Svetka to set her lipstick. Trust, friendship, and youth ignite between them. Anya will later refuse that sort of kiss to Sergey, then surrender it to him; formally speaking, this is the same kiss, extended and diverted, we see them bestow upon each other during a long bout of reciprocal oral sex.
And of course we know that Sergey will later chew up Anya’s passport, ripping up its pages and spitting them — or at least we know the rightness of the choice when we see it. Is this an act of love, or an act of hate? Of friendship, or of jealousy? Because he doesn’t want her to leave, or because he knows she can’t leave, not really? The destruction of the passport is also one of The Tribe’s many clever reversals: while a speaking person would tear up the book with his hands, a signing person might tear up the book with his teeth.
These kinds of relays — gestures echoed and transformed across the length of the film — are an integral part of its technique. In a second classroom scene, we enter to see only that a penis has been drawn on the board. The shop teacher enters behind us, then steps in front of the camera, erases the penis and draws over it a plan for a wooden mallet. One crude penis is exchanged for another, slightly more abstract crude penis, demonstrating their kinship and critiquing both.
The shop teacher then passes along a row of workstations, where a few of the boys are attempting to assemble their own mallets. Sergey’s is the very best (insomuch as it’s the only one that isn’t falling apart). The teacher examines it approvingly: the blond wood looks like nothing so much as an inarticulate pale fist, made not to speak but to destroy, dead, silent, at once an instrument of death and silence. You know someone will be killed with that mallet before anyone’s ever killed with it. And you know, too, that it marks a descent away from articulacy and the human, that the film understands violence as the opposite of language and does not show us violence simply to prove that people are awful, but to show us that it is possible to respond to the worst in our natures with an aesthetic complexity that is as nuanced as it is unblinking, to speak instead of striking, to reflect on destruction instead of destroying.
Fitting, then, that this second classroom scene echoes a first, long lesson on the relationship between the European Union and Ukraine. That first scene — Sergey’s first day of school — treated the arts of civilization, discussion, the seminar; the second offers a lesson in savagery and the tools of war. What is it about the structure of the tribe that allows the second kind of lesson — lessons in violence — to eclipse the first? Why are those lessons still so comprehensible? What is the difference between the ideology that structures the West and the ideology that structures the tribe? Not so much difference. How else can we feel when we are shown children squabbling over shit they shouldn’t want, slapping and bullying each other for gewgaws, candy, rumpled bills except that we know this kind of thing, and that we are very like them? Would we bother to show this kind of picture to ourselves if we really believed our awfulness were irreversible?
Many of The Tribe’s more pressing questions converge on Anya, fierce, unashamed, even playful until she is used up entirely. (When a boy stumbles into her room on accident, she doesn’t bother to cover her breasts. She just yells at him: apparently there is a universal language for Get out you fucker get out.) If Anya can escape from the Ukraine and from Russia into the European Union, even if she’s going to Italy to become a sex slave, will her life be any better? Better because it’s lived in the West, not the East, since the West has abstracted itself slightly further away from or hidden better the domination and exploitation of all bodies but especially of female bodies and of difference itself?
These are questions which a gentler film, one that gave us an Anya less furious, less energetically driven to escape — and which did not show the suffering she endures to escape — could not pose so strikingly. Thus we see Anya’s abortion, captured in a single take, stretching from the moment she slaps her money on a kitchen table to the moment she curls, keening, howling, into herself on a bathroom countertop. Anya uses her vocal chords precisely once in the film: this is it.
Like Sergey’s chillingly deliberate headsmashing, this is also one of the moments that make The Tribe a “difficult” movie to watch or might lead us to confuse it with a document of human awfulness. But it makes no final sense that pain — especially female pain — should not be seen or heard, especially not when that pain is exposed in a setting whose formal logic protects it from gratuitousness but does not dull its emotional or physiological effects. Anya’s cry reaches the view neither as form without content, which would be fetish, or content without form, which would be pornography. It exists within its cinematic context and exceeds it: it both fits into the aesthetic logic of the film, in a carefully developed interplay of language, sound and silence, and reaches outside it, into the ears, into the heart, into the organs, into the very body of the viewer.
Among its other effects, Anya’s cry reminds us how badly we need actors (especially actors like Novikova, whose performance last year rivals any other of which I am aware) and the sustained voyeurism that drives live action feature film. Articulate instances of suffering, no matter how seemingly sordid or upsetting, must be allowed into our mutual lives at a phase in technological and economic history when virtual forms of connection are every day mistaken for opportunities to express empathy when they are — no matter what else they might be — further ramifications of the market, when the words we use to tweet our political sentiment are machine-scanned and used to better distract us with more appropriate ads.
At such a moment, an art both embodied and set apart by its formal integrity, its development of an absorptive language not yet co-opted and pertaining only to itself, which stretches the attention, asks to be watched, not clicked on — that is, good cinema — seems suddenly necessary, as if our very viscera must be conscripted for the fight for what we might still want to call our common humanity.
But isn’t it cruel to make people feel unpleasant things that they don’t want to? And isn’t it just as bad, if not worse, to entertain people by showing them characters engaged in mutual cruelty? There are many possible responses to these questions, but the easiest might be that if we entangle ourselves in these questions without watching the film itself than we miss The Tribe’s most subtle and most concrete response to them.
In the world of The Tribe, the European Union feuds with Russia which repressed Ukraine which contains cities of killing poverty in which there are schools for the deaf whose teachers abuse their access to the lives of adolescents who have nothing and who will, in their turn, pass violence, sexism and horrifyingly good heads for business down to students younger and weaker than themselves. These structures are not stable but they are insoluble. Initiation at any level is initiation into all levels, and is irreversible: once Sergey joins the tribe, his responses are dictated by the tribe’s vocabulary, its forms of retribution, reward (always strictly material), and punishment. And that would remain true forever, in life as in the movies — unless, secreted among the members of any society, were artists and thinkers, documentarians, intellectuals, and eccentrics: people who make art and think about it.
Which is to say that the more we meet The Tribe on its own terms, the more we are reminded that Sergey’s tribe lacks something. Unlike real people, they make no art. They beat the shit out of each other in ritualized group combat, but they don’t know patterned, non-competitive, non-utilitarian play. They make forms, but those forms are instrumentalized; they are always already blueprints for weapons. They grab after things they can sell, or which intoxicate them, or which they can use to accumulate power. Sergey’s killing spree, which he achieves with an intuition so fine it amounts to a method, is the closest metaphor we are given for the making of the film itself. Nonetheless the difference between murder and art, between the impulse to destroy and the impulse to make, could not be clearer. A killing spree leaves nothing behind it, not even its perpetrator. Art used to murder is not art; it is more like a way for artists to commit unthinking self-murder. The camera’s eye catches Sergey’s one last time. He killed once, and no one saw it, and now he, too, is dead.
By contrast, the impulse to construct useless, enduring forms — especially when the content they enclose is hideous, a series of inhuman destructions like that killing spree — is a utopian impulse, the involvement of living minds and bodies in a collaborative process meant to outlive the murderous conditions it documents. And it acquires sudden, breathtaking salience if one considers that in this case it arose from a nation bled dry, deprived of color, pleasure, the free movement of culture and ideas. In this context a formally rigorously film, an aestheticism from the ashes is high proof of something almost holy.
It’s also an excellent reason to see a movie. This is the language of cinema, Slaboshpytskiy said at a Los Angeles screening last summer. He was trying to explain why he would want to make a movie with no words; he spoke in English so bad it seemed to tickle him and to a ripple of signed applause. We all see the same movie, no matter where we are, he said again, lifting his palms. We don’t need to believe him — or to love only the kind of art that he makes — to see a film like this one and, despite all its discomforts, feel less degraded, freer, more alive.