Monday, July 6, 2015

Movie Review: "The Tribe" (2015)

© Grindhouse Films

It's easy to be distracted by a movie that has an insurmountable gimmick, easy to be persuaded against reason into thinking said movie is good for that reason only. I say "gimmick" because Cannes darling film, The Tribe, released recently in a handful of theaters, is without argument one of a kind. And I say "insurmountable" because what makes it unique is also what makes it so challenging.

Telling the story of a group of Deaf students at a dilapidated Deaf school in the Ukraine, the film is told entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language, with no subtitles, no voice overs, no narration, and likely the most unnerving of all, no soundtrack. Director/writer Myroslav Slaboshpitsky's experiment is a ground-breaking attempt to create a film that, for the first time, tells a story about Deaf characters that could not be less about their deafness.

That was enough to entice me to the theater, but then I saw the movie. And while a movie that doesn't focus on Deafness as a point of melodramatic plot-wringing is, by me, applauded, The Tribe could not be further away from representing the Deaf experience in any meaningful way. Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) is the new kid at school, arriving to find himself quickly absorbed into a band of popular criminals who appear to rule dorms. So much so that even the teachers seem to either encourage or simply dismiss their activities—activities that range from loading the younger kids with stolen trinkets to sell to sympathetic hearing people on trains, to pimping out the older female students to drooling truckers. Sergey slips into his role without difficulty, about to cement his place as a reliable thug until he falls for (in his own perverse way) one of the school-girl prostitutes (Yana Novikova).

I'd say that's where the trouble begins, but there is trouble for everyone from beginning to end. Force-fed the violence, however amateur (there's a laughable group brawl pulled straight out of your theater stage-fighting class), and the graphic sexual exploits of every character through coldly unflinching cinematography—every scene consists of a single, unedited shot.

On paper, this sounds spectacularly gripping, and there are times when Slaboshpitsky uses this cinematic tactic to hold us all captive, but it isn't long before we start to resent him for it. Every character is despicable, and the lack of aide in following the story's intricacies only serves to distract from that fact. Watching a film told entirely through any signed language is astounding—watching a film about one-dimensional miscreants is not, no matter how gritty and cynical the sequences, no matter what language you tell it in.

Having spent many years at different points in my life studying American Sign Language, even training as an interpreter, the description from critics of a film where dialogue is impossible to follow felt like a challenge to me. The film is in USL, similar to Russian Sign Language—both come from the same linguistic family of French Sign Language, just like ASL.

Knowing what I knew about the story going in prepared me for the misery that was to come, but with my focus on deciphering a sign here, a sign there, the multitude of non-manual signs (i.e. facial expressions)... paying attention to the dialogue surprisingly distracted me from the insufferable, abrasive, and cruelly crafted plot. When you can't understand story, and are forced to look for clues and signals as to what is going on with the characters, it can all feel remarkably novel—even when it's not.

I understood significantly more than I'd expected. My viewing partner was certainly at a disadvantage as I nodded and squinted knowingly, catching leading bits of conversation that certainly informed me more than the director had probably intended. With the interpreting session happening inside my head, I was able to temporarily ignore the fact that this "Deaf-sploitation" film wasn't edgy, it was lazy. The lack of context or character development shouldn't be something for filmmakers to aspire to, and (spoiler alert!) inserting a traumatizing, real-time abortion scene is more likely going to make me dislike you and your film.

This isn't a film I could willingly recommend to anyone, simply because of the fact that it's so viscerally disgusting in parts, and mindless in others. It's not enough that it plays with our expectations about communication and challenges us to pay attention. If I could have loved it just for that, I would have. If that were the true mission of the filmmaker, he would have realized that watching our characters navigate the hierarchy of a close-knit school, begin and end relationships, is all visually compelling enough to follow through a flurry of hands. I'm left hoping that, with The Tribe likely to make an impression despite itself, sign language finds a way to dominant the screen, attached to a story worthy of it.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...