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Review: Sign Language Drama ‘The Tribe’ is an Unprecedented Cinematic Accomplishment

Review: Sign Language Drama 'The Tribe' is an Unprecedented Cinematic Accomplishment

READ MORE: How the Director of ‘The Tribe’ Made a Movie in Sign Language Without Speaking It

There is no spoken dialogue in “The Tribe,” Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s ambitious first feature, but it’s noisy in other ways. Exclusively set in and around a boarding school for deaf students, Slaboshpytskiy’s story never bothers with subtitles, forcing anyone unversed in the gesticulations to pay close attention to each passing gesture. That might sound like a daunting task, but Slaboshpytskiy manages to craft an engaging experience through the heated movements and whispered exchanges of his characters. As a concept, “The Tribe” has more in common with silent cinema, but its specific rhythms are unprecedented.

The narrative, however, has a comparatively simple arc. Deaf-mute student Sergey (Grigory Fesenko)—like the rest of the cast, his name only appears in the credits—arrives at the school in its opening minutes and quickly gets drawn into the rebellious antics of an anarchic clique led by a confident hustler (Alexander Dsiadevich) who ventures into nearby parking lots after hours to pimp out two fun-loving female students (Rosa Baby and Yana Novikova) for horny truckers. After a sudden accident cripples their operations, Sergey gradually develops his confident ability to wrestle control of the group, eventually forming an unexpectedly tender romance with one of the girls, Anna (Novikova).

They court danger wherever they can, stealing and mugging when they aren’t enduring class work. Slaboshpytskiy brilliantly develops a suspenseful core through the mysteries of their conversations and, eventually, the added visceral kick of graphic sex (as well as one particularly unnerving abortion). By turns exhiliarating, horrific and sad, “The Tribe” eventually turns into a tale of romantic heartbreak that sets up its lethal finale with no sugarcoating of its ingredients. All we can do is watch.

The director not only gives his real-life deaf actors the opportunity to emote in their own vernacular, a spectacular technical challenge that largely holds together. He also provides them with meaty roles that never condescends or pities them on the basis of their disabilities. He allows us to get lost in the chatter between his two female characters as they put on makeup before their next night out, shows the boys fighting among each other and playing pranks. They guzzle booze during a clandestine outing and strategize about their next set of criminal antics. While the specifics remain uncertain, it’s never particularly difficult to keep up with the movie’s pace, since their actions speak plainly enough—and sometimes add far more expressiveness than any verbal exchanges could provide.

Early on, Sergey’s body movements convey his introverted personality, which slowly changes as he falls for Anna and gains confidence in his abilities. (Anna ultimately receives enough screen time to become as an even more tragic figure later on.) Since Sergey can’t speak for himself, many scenes are dominated by precise details, particularly those including explicit sex. These aren’t the only blatant instances of shock value as the plot grows steadily darker, sometimes to the detriment of material that already holds enough appeal without the added subversive edge. However, the use of sexuality as a storytelling device has a certain underlying narrative power, rendering these seemingly foreign characters—at least for anyone unable to comprehend their works—in intimate details. Already using their bodies to communicate, their only mode of communication takes on its rawest manifestation when they’re frolicking in the nude.

Slaboshpytskiy and director of photography Valentin Vasyanovych use the steadicam approach to glide through each scene in lengthy, unbroken takes, capturing the actors’ exchanges in their full-bodied entirety. Devoid of a soundtrack, “The Tribe” compliments its visuals with drab sounds that draw out their disconnect from the rest of the world—humming car engines, rustling clothes, and thudding footsteps. By avoiding closeups, the filmmaker makes it clear that their entire bodies define their identities. It’s an appealing device from the outset, but “The Tribe” reaches the apex of its strengths during a party scene featuring nearly two dozen students standing around outside, as the screen fills with activity even as it remains essentially quiet.

As the story of the “The Tribe” adopts a cavalcade of grotesque twists that would stun viewers even without the sign language gimmick, it’s hard not to wonder if Slaboshpytskiy has underserved his protagonists with a series of disturbing events that distract from the movie’s chief strengths. However, from one mesmerizing scene to the next, “The Tribe” never loses its flow. Even its harshest moments are defined by vibrant motion.

Grade: A-

“The Tribe” opens in limited release this Wednesday.

READ MORE: ‘The Tribe’ Wins Big at 53rd Cannes’ Critics Week

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at first I was interested but the story sounds awful


Sofiane gang hh gang hh sofiane


Hi, is the movie understandable? i mean, i dont know sign language and i have serious problems trying to understand mimes.


Technically, the movie is a great accomplishment.
Visually, it does draw you in.
Story-wise, not so much. I was surprised at how easy it was to follow along, but it could be because there wasn’t much to follow.


There is no editing here for me to edit. You could have grabbed the chance to sign ASL on the stage for the world to see but you choose not to. :(


I am sorry, Ms. Matlin, I use Deaf-Mute as to empower myself and the community. You are the one who used your voice when you received an award some years ago. You were not proud to use ASL when you could have the chance to do on the stage for the world to see. You choose to speak and naturally we cringed when you spoke on the stage. I am sorry but Deaf-Mute is very powerful term and I tend to use it to let people know it is okay to not use voice to communicate. ASL = no voice and hands (eyes for sight people)

Alec McFarlane

My old friend, Marlee Matlin says that the term (sic) deaf-mute is… incorrect and antiquated. It is not. A person can be deaf, or deaf-mute and I can parade a long procession of deaf-mute people who are proud. Her use, on the other hand, of the terms "Hard of Hearing" is the modern escape act from deafness because this is a made-up term for people who are, by definition, not deaf… and usually because they can talk. This is the bigger problem; what does it mean to be deaf. Not all deaf people are mute, which means that many deaf people CAN and DO talk. The HOH moniker is predicated upon the ability to speak and hear, but the distinction between the two is negligible. The use of the Deaf and HOH string is more damaging than anything else because it obfuscates the matter of what it means to be deaf.

Margaret A-T. Seattle,WA

Deaf Urkanine Movie


"Sign language gimmick"? Thanks for the insult, eh? It's a beautiful and real language. You don't understand, because you have weaker occipital lobe and lower spatial skill. It's your brain gimmick. Deaf and dumb? Can't you see they speak with sign language! Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. It's you Hear and Dumb.


To add to the comments already posted, I would also like to point out the use of the word "gimmick"….the "sign language gimmick". It is a movie in a different language….you wouldn't say the "French gimmick" or otherwise….referring to sign language as a gimmick devalues it's beauty and worth as a language.


This film is very poignant, giving a "voice" to life as a teenager, decisions and choices, anger and sex, accepting oneself, bullying and isolation, forced situations at the hands of peers. It is written, acted and directed from the Deaf perspective. Though, all the same, a striking example of the human experience, which could be done in any language. The background sounds serve as a symphony of ordinary, everyday sounds, to enunciate the emotion in each scene. This was just a bite, nay, a nibble, of what this story truly is about. However, the vernacular used to introduce this film, those words are uncalled for. Offensive. Out of date. They strangle and even distract, overshadowing purpose, reducing this film's potentially intense power by pushing away those who reject the labels used at the beginning of it. Doesn't matter that "it's used in my country, so we used it." That's a copout. An excuse. If you're going to present a dark, intriguing, honest depiction of life as a Deaf person, I would greatly caution against actively and purposefully using oppressive language in a film this striking and powerful. It is akin to topping a beautiful, rich and moist, multi-layered cake with rotten, moldy frosting. Some cultures embrace and re-invent old oppressive language and turn it into a positive narration of their experiences, such as gay, queer, gimp. Your words, specifically, are debilitating and offensive, but this is not one of those times. I would like to see the rest of it, but only if it honestly portrays and honors Deafhood. Remove the words and let the movie speak for itself.

Deaf. Queer. Gimp.


Deaf and dumb – "dumb" is insulting to the hearing impaired. Just "deaf" is now the proper description. Surprised that it is used.

David h

Starting off with an interesting concept, the movie for me disintegrated into a series of simplistic scenes of unrealistic human depravity and misery. The story line became muddled and directionless. I sensed that the acting was forced, unsubtle, stereotypical and lacking in any emotion other than aggression. Even the more intimate moments of the film lacked any credible sense of tenderness. Not a theatrical experience to remember for me.

Marlee Matlin

The use of the term "deaf-mute" is an incorrect and antiquated term, one viewed as offensive by many who are deaf or hard of hearing. In fact the term went out of style, way before I even won the Academy Award. So, where have you guys been for the last quarter of a century?


it'd be a nice review, if you could get rid of words and concepts like "gesticulations", "gesture", "disabilities" and "has more in common with silent cinema" (why would it? it doesn't make use of sound, but it makes use of a full-fledeged language, which is not what silent cinema did, as it mostly employed gesture, mimicry and non-verbal cues, supported by short written captions.)


This sounds awful. The idea of a film based on sign language is intriguing, but the depraved content sounds miserably and depressing. Of course, there has to be the "shock value" of "explicit sex".

Far more shocking would be a contemporary work of art that expressed something more transcendent than explicit sex and amorality, with subtlety, beauty, and grace. This is clearly not that work of "art".

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