In the riveting crime drama The Tribe, a shy teenager arrives at a boarding school and joins the gang of boys who run the place like their own miniature mafia fiefdom.
He rises through the ranks by helping his new “tribe” commit crimes ranging from robbery to prostitution, but finds himself in love with the wrong girl and at deadly odds with the gang’s top dog. Things can’t end well, and they don’t.
One more thing: The Tribe is set in a Ukrainian boarding school for the hearing-impaired and its Michael Corleone-esque hero, like his classmates and the majority of the cast, is deaf.
Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s vividly disturbing coming-of-age portrait isn’t just a fantastic crime film; it’s a cinematic feat. Presented deliberately sans subtitles, The Tribe is a foreign sign language film that forces the viewer to pay attention to the screen, to devour every “dialogue” scene by deciphering only visual and emotional cues from its largely non-professional cast.
The gamble pays off in spades. Even without spoken exchanges between deaf actors (viewers still hear what the deaf characters cannot, making this not-quite a silent film as much as a selectively soundless film) its teenagers scream their feelings, intentions, and machinations right off the screen.
And what familiar feelings they have. New kid Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) trudges into school on his first day and realizes he’ll need to make good with King (Alexander Osadchiy) and his ring of teenage goons, who steal away from their dormitories to make trouble, like any teenagers, anywhere, ever.
More than able-hearing kids their age, these misfits have a colder and harsher reality facing them after graduation. They ready for adulthood by building a budding criminal empire on funds culled from pickpocketing, stealing, and prostituting their willing female classmates to truck drivers on the side.
Slaboshpytskiy, a journalist turned filmmaker who grew up near a deaf school, was inspired to make his own version of a modern silent film by the mysterious language he observed between deaf kids his age as a child.
His script, meanwhile, was inspired by real-life accounts of so-called “deaf mafias” that operate within the Ukrainian deaf community.
“The Tribe is based on a number of stories that the people in the deaf community told me. The deaf mafia is like any alternative system of society, they have unofficial taxes, they have unofficial trials, unofficial bosses in the city,” Slaboshpytskiy told The Daily Beast via phone from New York, where he was touring his Cannes Critics’ Week prizewinner.
“Pickpocketing is big business, of course. Deaf people have very sensitive fingers because they use them all the time,” he continued. “One of my consultants was a vice principal of a deaf boarding school, the daughter of deaf parents. She told me her parents had to pay unofficial money to the unofficial leader of the deaf community for permission for her to leave the city and study at university.”
Despite being so specifically marginalized by society, the teens of The Tribe engage in shockingly violent, exploitative crimes. Maybe even because of it, they prey on those weaker than them: Defenseless classmates, strangers walking alone at night, female classmates willing to sell their bodies, some of the only remaining currency they have.
The Tribe manages to empower rather than exploit the deaf community by representing its characters as complex, not infantilized. “Myroslav has done something to bring deaf people out of the shadows and to the public,” lead actress Yana Novikova said in an interview.
After his high-profile Cannes debut and a celebrated festival run that’s yielded awards from Cannes, AFI Fest, Fantastic Fest, Sitges, and more, Slaboshpytskiy’s got a ready reply for the critics who might accuse The Tribe of deafsploitation.
“A deaf viewer said a very important thing for me,” he said. “The film considers deaf people like regular people. He told me it’s not a film about deafness, it’s a film about human beings. I was so proud. That’s my answer.”
That The Tribe was made at all is a coup in itself. Slaboshpytskiy relied on contacts at the Ukrainian Society of the Deaf for help casting his ambitious feature debut, holding auditions at the organization multiple times a month and spreading word via deaf social networks.
He found an expressive lead actor in then-19-year-old Fesenko, a soccer player and amateur parkourist with a Michael Cera baby face from Kiev.
To star opposite Fesenko, the director cast Belarusian engineering student Novikova, who dropped out of college to pursue acting and landed the most demanding role in The Tribe—even though she wasn’t told which role she’d be playing until weeks before shooting began.
Novikova bares everything in The Tribe as Anya, the slender blonde classmate who Sergey is first tasked with pimping, then falls for. She’s the center of some of the film’s most harrowing scenes, and Slaboshpytskiy says, almost walked over a graphic sex scene.
“For Yana it was a problem,” he said. “I told her we had the sex scene in the film and she agreed, but when she moved closer to the scene she became a little bit of a rebel about it… she has a boyfriend, the boyfriend was completely against the sex scene.”
“I made a special workshop for her with films by Michael Winterbottom and Blue is the Warmest Color,” he continued, “and finally she understood it would be something in between porn and mainstream. Finally she decided to take part in the sex scene.”
Bigger obstacles loomed over the Tribe’s 2013 shoot, which took place during the violent Euromaidan anti-government clashes preceding Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, and wrapped after Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Street closures led to cancelled shooting days. The director had to create a contingency plan for editing in case the Russian army invaded.
Slaboshpytskiy also worried that his movie might be ruined if he lost his lead actor, Fesenko, who he says participated in some of the violent protests that brought the world’s attention to the streets of Kiev.
“Grigoriy sometimes would go into the Maidan and take part in the street battles with police, and I was really scared that the police could shoot him, because it was around the time when the first person was shot,” said Slaboshpytskiy, who lives only a few miles from where bloody riots left many protesters dead.
It’s tempting to read into The Tribe as a timely political statement, even where one wasn’t necessarily intended. It’s certainly destined to be the most widely seen cinematic artifact of modern revolutionary Ukraine of its time, with theatrical runs set for 40 countries including multiple European territories, the UK, and North America (via Drafthouse Films, which opens the film this week in New York and on June 25 in Los Angeles).
“The Tribe is a portrait of the Ukraine before Maidan—a metaphorical portrait, of course,” Slaboshpytskiy mused. “I shot an atmosphere inside the country in which every institute, every social institute, every government operated on a principle like a mafia group, and the atmosphere of waiting among some rebels and the revolution.”
The filmmaker, who’s readying his sophomore feature, a neo-noir set in the ruins of Chernobyl based on his own experience reporting on the area and its survivors, admits he maybe couldn’t help but be affected by the unrest that permeated Ukraine from The Tribe’s inception: “I finished the script in 2011 and I shot it in 2013. I lived in Kiev breathing the same air as the persons who took part in the protests. So I think I felt something in the air.”