The Tribe, Ukraine: ATW in Movies

If there’s a single line of spoken dialogue in The Tribe, I don’t remember it: We are in the world of the tribe, a snowier version of whichever island was visited by Piggy, Ralph and the rest in Lord of the Flies. The difference here is that the setting is Ukrainian — the film was shot, if not explicitly set, in Kiev — and the schoolboys are deaf.

The film seems in no meaningful way about deafness per se, but it is both interesting and informative to observe how the deaf actors communicate with each other: the back-slaps and jostling and demands for attention. (When you can’t scream, you push.) Watch as well during the melée scene, the busy activity in the background as the crowd of extras communicate their observations with their hands: There’s something uncanny about the physical makeup of the scene until you realize that the pale fluttering in the background is the movement of the actors’ hands.

The inability to hear does not, as it turns out, indicate an inability to be cruel, something we discover as we follow our main character, Sergey, on his first day of school — and his elevation, by a crowd of young toughs, into their ranks: assaulting and stealing from passersby, fighting each other, and handling the day-to-day responsibilities of pimps-in-training, tasked with the negotiations between a pair of their female classmates and the truck drivers who pay them for blow jobs and sex.

It is, all told, fairly horrific, and yet none of that is as horrific as a scene, toward the end of the movie, when one of the two prostitutes, Anya, undergoes an illegal abortion — a scene exponentially more harrowing than a similar one in one of my favorite movies, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, about the waning days of the Ceausescu regime. This scene is torture porn like something out of Hostel or Saw. Some viewers found it gratuitous; personally, I believe that this scene is less dystopic — a dystopia, in this case, being an “imagined place or state,” emphasis on imagined — or less fabricated than many that surround it: Given no safe and legal recourse, women have, for centuries, sought other ways to terminate their unwanted pregnancies. This is not a dystopia; this is pre-Roe v. Wade America. Whether this political intent was primary for the director, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, or whether it was simply of a piece with his vision of a world of bottomless degradation and pain — who knows. But I think it’s important to look at the consequences of our collective decisions — our laws — squarely in the eye, and this scene certainly does.

The Tribe is difficult to watch — we haven’t even discussed whether the film-closing smorgasbord of violence actually happened, or if it was simply the end-of-life wish fulfillment of a dying Sergey; my vote is for the latter — but it is also, occasionally, tremendously beautiful: I loved a scene, toward the beginning, when the students gather outside to drink the spoils of their crimes, and they’re shot in and around a decidedly Communist-era-looking playground: swing set (beautiful, terrifying) and what I assume was a ticket window — mustard, navy, maroon, forest green.

The colors remind me of “Nighthawks”:

I think it will be a shame if American viewers inappropriately align Kiev with the world of The Tribe: Apparently Slaboshpytskiy was a crime writer before a filmmaker, and I don’t dispute that perhaps there are variations on this nihilism in Kiev today, but it is just one of the many narratives that could be told about the city today — which, like most others, is beautiful and corrupt, dangerous and decrepit, depending on which way you look. Netflix’s documentary, Winter on Fire, might provide some interesting and contemporary context there.

The Tribe. Available on iTunes.

Last review: Mustang

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Hi, I'm Diana. I've written about travel for The Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed, The Cut, Travel + Leisure, Outside, and lots of other places. This is my blog.