BIFF 2014: The Tribe

Bergen International Film Festival 2014: The Tribe (Plemya) is a Ukrainian sign language movie, presented without subtitles or any sort of translation.

It’s described as the most uncompromisable visual movie experience of the year, and there are few arguments to be made against this description. The movie is presented with such a ferocious and unapologetic element of visual storytelling that one could be excused to hail writer/director, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, as the strongest debutant of the year.

To tell a story where most of your audience will have to rely on visual queues and animated movements, is to put all your faith in their connotations of the actions depicted on screen. It’s painfully obvious everyone on the team – from director to actors, and editor to music composer – has given it their all to make this work as well as it does, but I will use the words of the trailer to explain just why: This film is in sign language. There are no subtitles and no voiceovers. Because for Love, and Hatred, You Don’t Need Translation. 

We follow Sergey, a deaf-mute young male, who enrolls at a boarding school for people with the same affliction. Here he learns that the school is a violent underworld of organized crime. There are a lot of things happening behind the scenes, where a small group of young men seems to be in full control of it all. To explain with detail what it’s that they do, would be to take away huge chunks of the movie – not only in terms of the narrative, but also your own interpretation of the movie.

There is unprovoked violence against random and innocent by passers, and the leading boys seem to force a couple of female students into prostitution at a local truck stop. However, as the movie goes on – and a few things becomes open for interpretation, the morality of the actions depicted so far can be seen in a different light.

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It goes without saying that The Tribe is a movie that’s not for everyone. Not only is it cinematic language inherently complex, thus alienating large portions of a potential audience, but its themes and overall narrative is an honest and raw depiction of a horribly dark truth. Quite a few scenes become difficult to watch – so much so that a few people left the screening in anger – thanks to the cinematography of Valentyn Vasyanovych.

Debuting as a cinematographer with The Tribe, the Ukrainian writer/director manages to shoot the entire movie with extremely long takes, not always clinging to the characters, but moving through the environment with great care and ease. It should be noted that I could spot a boom microphone once, but that could be the fault of the projectionist. However, the long takes throws my mind to Steven Spielberg, where most of them become invisible, yet their presence can always be felt. A few of the most impactful scenes could easily be compared to the opening scene of Les petits mouchoirs – which is one of the best long takes in recent cinematic history.

None of the actors have done other movie before, and while it’s difficult to judge how well they perform, they do they’re work really well. They manage to express nuanced feelings and emotions, not only with their body language, but also their facial expressions and sign language – if you read into it. It seems everyone involved are new to their jobs. I, and everyone else, loves to witness a good debutant, but while someone might present a new and unique voice to the industry with their debut movies, it’s rare to see something so complex and utterly ingenious from a crew of them.

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Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

Uses words from time to time. Equally inspired and confused by metamodernism.

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