I previously reported on The Voice of the Voiceless, and now here I go again down the silent rabbit hole of Deaf Mute Central, goaded into it by a hard-hitting film recently screened at the Anonimul Independent Film Festival in Bucharest. If the American indie hammered home the surreal but all too common ways deaf mutes are being taken advantage of, the lay of the soundless land in Ukraine looms bleaker still after you’ve watched The Tribe, a flick that’s definitely not for the faint of heart. But see it through and you’re likely to achieve a rare insight into the hear-no-nothing-speak-no-nothing underworld they carve within a sickly climate – one that’s not rooted in handicap, but in the instant connection born out of a shared, dismal experience.
The movie, as experimental as the medium gets these days without piggybacking on digital wizardry, climbed its way to the top, nabbing the status of “most commercially successful Ukrainian film in the past twenty-three years of the country’s existence,” as the writer-director pointed out at last month’s Karlovy Vary screening. Three-prize winner in the Critics’ Week sidebar at Cannes, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s freshman outing, realistically brought to life by deaf-mute first-time actors, leverages sign language to the point of doing away with speech altogether – and the kicker? No subtitles or captions in sight! It is then left to the cinematic language alone, through wide shots that favor gestures over mimic, to turn the whole raft of question marks that flood any given scene into a matching puzzle piece. That the translation we eventually arrive at by some miracle is not a mere approximation, but dovetails with the whole, the plot therefore emerging loud and clear from the muffled muddle, only goes to show the filmmaker’s mastery of composition and pace.
Without much of a lead-in to speak of, we are dropped inside a boarding school for deaf-mute youths, right as a new arrival joins their ranks – soon after touching down, Sergey (played with subtle facial eloquence by Grigoriy Fesenko) takes up with a fast team of delinquents who are running the show. Or shows rather, as many as prison and gangsta flicks have taught us to expect: any money-making racket imaginable is carried out with clockwork precision by this close-knit band of teenage hoodlums and hookers. With the usual pranks and bullying out of the way, Slaboshpytskiy veers into heavier territory, brusquely peeling off the school front to reveal a crime-ridden ethos where the stakes are high and the ruffians hardened – as though the grounds were a training camp for the mob.
Sergey gains entry into “the tribe” by throwing down with them, then goes on to assist them in peddling stuffed animals on trains and pimping out two of his classmates to truck drivers. This small-scale – that we know of – prostitution ring eventually gives rise to “opportunities” abroad for the girls, one of whom (Yana Novikova’s frail but ambitiously pragmatic Anya) catches Sergey’s eye and puts him on a collision course with the rest of the gang. If we generally speak of safety in numbers, the deaf mutes’ micro-society is wholly dependent on its contingent: the more and the quicker the pairs of eyes at its disposal, the faster “the tribe” is alerted to, and can act on, a threat. But when the love-sick Sergey stops having their backs, he has to watch his own as the plot spirals down through some of the toughest scenes I’ve ever seen depicted on screen. The first sounds voiced by anyone in The Tribe are howls of pain, underscoring a backstreet abortion shown in full, without respite, a senseless sacrifice on the altar of emigration.
With head-spinning swiftness, and a matter-of-fact tone, the helmer chills us into a reluctant understanding of the dangers that many kids face with the reckless boldness afforded by age and hardship. For these kids in particular, they’re thick on the ground too: from the odd truck sliding into gear behind, and then over, an unassuming lot lizard pimp, through to a train vendor stealing “the tribe’s” potential customers, these immediate hiccups are neutralized with a varying degree of success, but the punch they pack as a whole speaks to the culture of unchecked abuse that hangs a hypnotic Damocles’ sword over the film. There’s a constant urgency to the movie, conveyed by long takes and sweeping camerawork, which compounds the suspense created through the swishing sounds of limbs violently slashing the air in full screaming mode, or shoving another’s to get their attention.
The process of watching this blasted on screen with no sound cues or guiding lights might seem arduous on paper, but when it grips you and shakes you down of all your preconceptions – incidentally, just like the band of brothers literally rattle the last dime out of a boy by turning him upside down and flapping him about midair – it turns into a brain-twister that never lets up. If years of attending the Anonimul festival have taught me anything, it’s the yardstick by which one can gauge a spot-on selection: the silence that falls on the campsite soon after the opening credits. It’s a rare gem that which commands the full attention of an audience that, for the most part, has come down bearing tents and sleeping bags to drown out the cement jungle in the open air and the libation-stoked merry-making – this time around, to my utter astonishment, the festival-goers brooked no whisper. Everyone was too busy deciphering the muted story as it unfolded on its own quick-fire terms.
With so little virgin land left for cinema to lay claim over, Slaboshpytskiy’s unique glimpse into the impenetrable “clique” of the hearing- and speaking-impaired is the breath of raw air our film-loving lungs were gasping for. And this fresh conquest is made all the more poignant by where the film plants its flag – namely, at the intersection of Ukraine’s hard-knocks life and the soft underbelly of its social outcasts and underprivileged youths, all desperate to escape it. The world may now see the Ukraine, through CNN-et-al lenses, as a hotbed of insurrection. But for anyone living under the pall of post-communism, with all the poverty and evolutionary ruthlessness that entails, peering into The Tribe‘s cone of silence and squalor will feel, if not familiar, at the very least factual. An utterly realistic jump into the unknown we know of.