This IS Hardcore. Picture the most harrowing film you have seen. Strip the language. Replace with Sign Language and press play. A recipe for disaster that somehow still bewitches a dumbfounded, dumbstruck, but utterly spellbound audience. The Tribe was a veritable hit at the Cannes Film Festival and through its use of non-professional deaf actors, and not a word of spoken dialogue, it provides an excruciating experience that transcends the customary criteria for film as a genre. Without language, the film is an exhibition of the human body as a means of communication; the actors display their thoughts both visually and physically, but never verbally.
Once ensnared, writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky presents a punishing tale of post-pubescent suffering through the eyes of our youthful protagonist, Sergey (Grigory Fesenko). The Tribe commences comfortably enough as Sergey asks directions to his new boarding school for the deaf from a nice old lady at a regulation Ukrainian bus stop. As he ascends the stairs coated with fallen autumn leaves, this could very easily be James MacAvoy off to Bristol University and student life in Starter for Ten. For starters, this is where regulation ends and Slaboshpitsky’s vision of a brutal, downtrodden Ukrainian underworld begins.
As misnomers go, the lazy labelling of Sergey’s residential institute for the deaf as a ‘boarding school’ by western intelligentsia is one of the finer examples. It is an institute that is closer to a state penitentiary than a silver spoon sucking boarding school. If we cross reference the typical English definition of a ‘boarding school’, we need look no further than our current Etonian (definitely not Estonian) political elite. Extrapolating from this formula, surprisingly, there are parallels between our kleptocratic Westminster government and The Tribe’s Ukrainian micro-mob of deaf students. David Cameron is in the guise of the smarter, suited and booted leader of the gang. Meanwhile, blond, blue eyed boy, Boris of Johnson pops up in the perennially polemical, pugnacious enforcer. A personal favourite has to be chief economist and think-tank of the operation, smacking of our very own George Osborne, played by the superlative Alexander Dsiadevich. The actor provides more of a camp mastermind approach: from the achingly upright gait to the proud stomp of boot as he negotiates the neon corridors of the institute. His swagger and style owe more to Simon McBurney’s Archdeacon in BBC comedy Rev meets John Simm’s conscience for justice, than a Ukrainian neo-gangster. Dsiadevich’s Simon McBurney, John Simm lovechild offsets the other more Neanderthal youths perfectly to characterise rather than caricature the collective of The Tribe.
Before this all gets out of hand and into the realm of parody, it is important to underline that this is a film devoid of levity. It manhandles, grappling deftly, with the most difficult of material: exploitation and human trafficking. Slaboshpitsky sets the drama in an institute for the deaf in order to bring to screen the most vulnerable slice of society that can so often be overlooked. The director shines two bright white headlights into this world, offering no hope, but putting the truth firmly under the spotlight. It is a world in which, truly, the hustlers whore and the whores hustle to plagiarise a gloriously simple line from the poetry of PJ Harvey. While Sergey starts innocently enough, he is drawn bit by bit, further and further into an unrelentingly awful spiral of exploitation that he has to negotiate or be sucked beneath. The main emotional arc is Sergey’s burgeoning passion for Yana (Yana Novikova), a fellow student now treading the tarmac tightrope of a young prostitute in the throes of the juggernaut: a vagina for hire to lustful, lonely lorry-driving lovers. Sergey picks his route carefully up the hierarchy, some sort of warped cursus honorum, rising from boy to beat to premier pimp. This final promotion leads him into conflict with the unofficial leadership of The Tribe, triggering the last and shockingly savage scenes of rehabilitative retribution.
Perhaps the most unsettling feature of the film (quite a feat considering the 130mins are all in sign Language) is the absence of an authority within this apparently state run and financed institution. If Britain thinks it has a problem with the rise of decentralised education, under the GOVErnment banner of ‘free schools’, and the farcical failures of Operation Trojan Horse, try taking a look at The Tribe’s Ukraine. Not only do we never know how much of the awful exploits are state-sanctioned, within the system, the boys’ Tech teacher actually drives the patriotic blue and yellow pimp wagon, stuffing the scantily dressed girls in the rear. Whether this is a political stab at the lack of efficient, state control within modern Ukraine or simply a necessary plot stimulus to enable the anarchic freedom of the young mobsters, it is difficult to establish. To what extent the film paints a specifically Ukrainian image or deals with a universal issue, set in Ukraine is debateable. Nonetheless, the evils of The Tribe, exploitation and trafficking are a plague more widespread than a single state. Slaboshpitsky must take credit for facing these traumatic themes head on and with no filter of fear.