This is a brief review of The Tribe in order to accompany the introduction to the film that I made last night at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, London.
I have been meaning to write about a number of the films I have introduced, but only now have had the chance.
The Tribe is Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy‘s first film, and it tells the story of a young deaf man (Grygoriy Fesenko) who arrives at a boarding school for deaf people in Kiev/Kyiv.
Soon he becomes embroiled in the students’ criminal activities, being chosen after the accidental death of one of his peers to pimp out girls from the school.
He falls in love with one of the girls (Yana Novikova), and then proceeds to defy the rule of King (Oleksandr Osadchyi), the lead gangster.
Developing on from Slaboshpytskiy’s Glukhota/Deafness (Ukraine, 2010) – which can be seen here – The Tribe contains almost no dialogue, with almost all discussion and conversation taking place in Ukrainan sign language. It also features no subtitles.
The Tribe is relatively easy to follow in terms of plot. Nonetheless, clearly the effect of the sign language (some, but few, viewers will be Ukrainian signers) is to alienate audience members somewhat from what they see.
Slaboshpytskiy also achieves this in part through his stylistic choices: The Tribe often features long takes, or sequence shots, which also are long shots – i.e. the camera maintains a relatively long distance from the events that we see onscreen.
That is, by refusing to ‘speak’ both in terms of dialogue (with traditional subtitles) and in terms of the usual language of cinema (close-ups explaining to us what we need to know, linked to shots that match the eyeline of the characters, such that we know who sees what and when), The Tribe, while easy to follow on some levels, is also a complex film to follow: what are we supposed to look at during each frame? What is going on?
In refusing to answer these questions, Slaboshpytskiy’s film clearly wants us instead to think. And in some respects to see the world anew. For, in being a film without dialogue, The Tribe clearly recalls the classic, silent cinema.
And as silent cinema, when it first arrived, helped audiences to see the world anew, through techniques such as slow motion, fast motion, reverse motion and freeze frames, so, too, might The Tribe achieve the same goal.
More than this: The Tribe might not only allow us to see the world anew, or as if for the first time (a process of estrangement/defamiliarisation from the world that Viktor Shklovsky called ostranenie), but might also allow us to see cinema as if for the first time.
Why would this be important?
It would be important because we live in a world in which cinema is the measure of reality. Why do I say that cinema is the measure of reality?
Well, obviously it is a provocative statement (though others, like Jonathan Beller, also argue as much) . Nonetheless, we live in an age in which we all try to force ourselves to look as much like movie stars as possible. This is not simply copying the fashions of the movies, but about creating an image of oneself that conforms to the lighting, make-up, image quality, variable focus and so on of cinema and photography. We detag ourselveis when we look ugly on Facebook. Because do not look cinematic – even if we look like ourselves. And as you are not really real if you not on Facebook, so if you do not conform to the widespread image standards do you not really get to exist in the same way as everyone else.
In other words, if we accept my prognosis that the world is cinematic (‘it was just like in a movie’ says everyone when something exciting happens to them, as if the rest of their lives, the uncinematic bits, were inferior, boring, not worth commenting upon, unreal), then to see the world anew is by definition today about seeing cinema anew, too.
One of the ways in which we can see cinema and the world both anew via The Tribe is through the film’s emphasis on gesture.
Benjamin Noys, drawing on the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, suggests that cinema might not be about image, but in fact about gesture. And yet, we tend to think of cinema as being so much about image, rather than about gesture, and we tend to think of the world as being about image rather than about gesture, too. Thus, for The Tribe to foreground gesture – the gestures of Ukrainian sign – is for most audience members a way for them to rethink what cinema is and what the world is.
This needs greater explanation. Most of the time, when we watch movies, and indeed when we see people going about their daily lives, we see people carrying out movements, but not necessarily gestures.
What is the distinction between movement and gestures? Movement has an end: I go from A to B (in order to carry out X). Gesture, meanwhile, has no end.
More: the world under capital is about the control of the body, such that the body’s movements are productive, and thus function as a means for capitalists to profit.
This is the philosophy of the production line: the production lines enforces repetitive, mechanical movements that are the control of the body’s gestures, turning them from gestures to movements for the purposes of capital.
As an example, we are back to silent cinema, with Charles Chaplin as the filmmaker par excellence of the production line, especially in his Modern Times (USA, 1936).
We also know that capital is about the control of bodies, because we find so funny and liberating bodies that are out of control. Think, for example, of the Ministry of Funny Walks or David Brent’s dance in The Office.
(Of course, we also find out of control bodies disgusting at times, too: a general antipathy towards certain ‘unruly’ body types, or bodies that cannot maintain strict boundaries – we dislike bodies that ooze, for example, sweat, snot, piss, blood, sleep, and so on.)
Furthermore, in the contemporary age, so many YouTube videos are about not out-of-control dancing, but controlled dancing. Control of the body, especially then to turn controlled body into image, such that the image of the controlled body can then capture attention, which in turn helps that body to become monetised, since if we all always look at certain types of body (woman as the world’s biggest industry), then we can use that body to sell things (cinema as the base language of advertising; advertising as a clear expression of capital).
In contrast to controlling our bodies, we might otherwise work out what weird and strange things that our bodies, in the spirit of Baruch Spinoza, can do. That is, as we are all different, so do we all move differently and thus we ought to be concerned with individuality and not conformity in terms of how we move. In other words, we might progress from movement (controlled bodies under capital) to gesture (bodies doing unfamiliar things, bodies out of control).
The Tribe is a film that is quite consciously about what bodies can do (and, through its non-mainstream filmmaking techniques – the long shots and long takes – about what cinema can do) . Indeed, this is a film in which all of the characters not only express themselves linguistically (Ukrainian sign) through their bodies, but in which violence, prostitution and various other bodily movements and gestures become prominent for us to see.
Importantly, though, the film does not limit itself to showing to a hearing audience the unusual bodies of these deaf people – making of it a voyeuristic exercise in seeing different bodies, but fetishising them precisely for being different.
On the contrary, the film is also about the control of bodies, and about how the limits of Ukrainian sign (language also as a system of control?) are quickly reached, and bodies must as a result find new ways to express themselves.
It is entirely logical and appropriate, then, that The Tribe is also a difficult film to watch in the sense that it is full of violence, sex and, ultimately, a gesture carried out by the lead character (referred to as Serhiy) that is so terrifying that the film thoroughly deserves its 18-rating in the UK.
For, these are gestures that shock us out of our unthinking perceptions and movements, making us see the world anew. And we do not just gawp at deaf Ukrainians in watching The Tribe, but we also are moved by the gestures that we see, causing us to reflect upon what our bodies can do, and to think (with thinking being a journey into the unknown in which we do not so much repeat what we already know, but work out what it is that our brains can do, but following routes of thought that we have not yet discovered – what mental associations can I make; a journey by definition into the unpredictable).
This, then, is what makes Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe a great movie, and one that I think as many audiences should watch as possible. It is troubling, harrowing, alienating. But in forcing us out of our comfort zones, the film engages us in the ethical challenge of finding out not just who we are, but who we could be – with the result being that consciously we ourselves choose to become, perhaps, better, more ethically engaged human beings.