Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy makes an assured feature film début with his astonishing film, “Plemya” [Eng. Title: the Tribe]. With dialogues entirely in Ukrainian sign-language (which the director himself is not fluent in) and presented without subtitles, voice-overs, or even background music, it forces the viewer to approach the film in the form in which it was originally invented – as a motion picture rather than a talking picture. All the film’s main cast are deaf, and use sign language in their day-to-day lives.
Thankfully for us, the storyline isn’t complicated, and anyone who’d seen Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” and Larry Clark’s “Kids” would readily try and identify connections with the film. It begins with young Sergey (Grygoriy Fesenko) arriving to join a boarding school for the deaf. On the very same day, he is also introduced to the school’s own violent crime gang who call themselves ‘The Tribe’.
After passing through his initiation rituals, Sergey will begin participating in the gang’s assorted acts of thuggery and drug-dealing. He will also become the replacement pimp for two of his fellow students from school, Anya (Yana Novikova) and Svetka (Roza Babiy), and help ply their prostitution trade at a night-time truck-stop.
His troubles begin when Sergey falls in love with Anya despite knowing that she’s also the boss’s girlfriend. He pays for having sex with her initially, but after Anya reciprocates his feelings, their love affair becomes earnest. When she discovers that she’s become pregnant however, she wastes little time in having it terminated through an off-duty midwife. Unaware of this, a showdown with the ‘boss’ will loom large for Sergey who finds out that preparations are being made for Anya to be trafficked to Italy. More brutality ensues after Sergey is forced into conflict with the entire tribe in his quest to protect his love interest…
What marks the film apart is not just the detail that all cast members in the film happen to be deaf in real life as well, but also because it challenges the viewer at many levels; in bringing a generally ‘marginalised’ community into sharp ‘mainstream’ focus, in stating that people with disabilities are just as capable of adapting, behaving, and forming violent gangs as anyone else in wider society, and in demonstrating that what people with disabilities require is not sympathy, but empathy.
The film was in my must-watch list at last year’s London Film festival after it deservedly swept through many awards at Cannes earlier that year. Watching it again more recently on DVD, I realise that there is not a single close-up shot used in the film – most scenes are shot from a distance in a ‘detached’ Antonioni style. Regardless, we are still privy to characters’ thoughts and feelings at any given moment. The frantic gestures that they use in their sign language, whilst baffling at the beginning, start making sense as we delve into the way they communicate, which while remaining notionally silent, nevertheless convey their feelings in as clear and precise a manner as possible. Characters display the attitude of typical teenagers; they could be sarcastic, silly, and use swear ‘words’. They could also be argumentative, reflective, and moving.
The film is equally challenging in its artistic and technical fronts. Most of the scenes are shot using long takes that require a great degree of coordination and direction to pull off, using what’s essentially a non-professional cast. Having said that, the actors are totally convincing in their respective roles, and it is hard to believe that they’ve never acted in film before. Yana Novikova in particular shines in a role that is demanding not just physically, but also emotionally. This is the first seriously artistic film I’ve seen made in Ukraine, and was pleasantly surprised to know that the Ukrainian State Film Agency had partly funded a film that’s more thought-provoking than uplifting. Highly Recommended Viewing..!
The Nudity: Yana Novikova and Grygoriy Fesenko
The film features extensive nudity and sex from the main protagonists. All of these scenes were accomplished with long takes using a single camera. There is also a disturbing scene where Yana Novikova’s character is partially nude as she undergoes, in real-time, an abortion procedure.