Autonomy and Exploitation in “The Tribe”

I saw the brutal and breathtaking film The Tribe the other day. It was about decay and violence and sex as violence and belonging and exclusion. It was about a thuggish gang of high school students at a Ukrainian boarding school for the Deaf. Peeling paint on the walls of the ugly claustrophobic corridors and stairwells sets the tone. The landscape was filled with graffiti and burned out cars and dilapidated buildings. No future and beyond hope.

The teachers enforced no rules and looked the other way at systematic violence as a way of life. Not only that, adults helped facilitate the criminal activity (along gender lines): robbery and physical assault for the boys, and prostitution for the girls.

The film was filled with constant dialogue but none of it was spoken. The non-professional actors communicated via Ukrainian sign language.

There were no subtitles.

This was the central conceit of the film: the audience is forced to interpret the story by watching the characters gesture, decoding their facial expressions and body language. Which is not all that hard for many of us to do* (in broad strokes, at least), but the nuance is lost.

But nuance was not the point here. The ambient sounds — roaring traffic, crunching leaves, footsteps on snowy sidewalks, knocking on windows, slaps, fists hitting flesh — were all amplified, or at least it seemed that way. The nihilism was overwhelming. And the violence (including sexual violence) was…. very disturbing, to say the least.

The overall critical reception of The Tribe (along with work by lead actors Hryhoriy Fesenko and Yana Novikova, director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, and cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych) has been glowing: a rating of 78% on Metacritic and 87% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Autonomy or Exploitation?

But was Slaboshpytskiy exploiting these young members of the Deaf community (with whom he could not communicate directly) by exposing them so completely (emotionally as well as physically)? Fesenko and Novikova appeared completely nude in sex scenes that were used in promotional material.

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Exploitation

Two underage girls were shown as willing participants in the school prostitution ring, pimped out by their classmates and teachers, engaging in grubby and degrading truck stop sex. The director chose not to show us the emotional toll such sex work would have, instead justifying it as their only way out… out of the depressing institutional school, and out of the country (to Italy).

But here I should let Yana Novikova speak for herself:

“With great fear I anticipated seeing myself naked on the big screen, and this feeling of alarm didn’t leave,” Novikova says in an e-mail interview. “I was so uncomfortable. I had a desire to hide from everyone and everything under a chair. I thought if I played it badly, the audience will laugh at me.

“And then the movie ended, the credits went, and they turned on the lights. The reaction of the public dumbfounded me: Someone cried, someone was in a chair and just sat, covering their face. And then everyone rose and started applauding, turning to us. They shouted ‘Bravo!’”

Autonomy

Novikova said in the interview that she always wanted to be an actress. How many acting opportunities are there for young Deaf Ukrainian women? Zero, except for this one. And here “we” the hearing should consider the possibility of a wider autonomy for the members of an insular community — autonomy for both the actors and their characters in the film. The latter is a more problematic notion, since they’re underage victims of institutional neglect.

Novikova continues:

The brutality and nihilism exhibited by mere teenagers in the film is astonishing. The situation is murky: Are these students purely victims of predatory teachers or willing collaborators in their own degradation?

“I was told stories about corruption in deaf boarding schools, particularly between the years 1990-1996,” says Novikova, 22. “I think it is a bit of both. Each is feeding the other, like an addiction.”

Importantly, the characters existed outside of and apart from the world of the hearing. They’re allowed to be as bad as the rest of us. It’s the viewers who are the marginalized ones, who must figure out what’s going on. To dismiss this as a “silent” movie is to ignore the centrality of signing in the Deaf community.

…and Back to Exploitation

The director had the two lead actors watch a number of movies with explicit sex scenes, like Last Tango in Paris, 69 SongsShortbus, and Salò. And the one that raised a red flag for me, Blue is the Warmest Color, which I thought was extremely exploitative and male-gazy (but that’s another story). More from the interview:

…She grew more comfortable having to undress after seeing “Blue.”

“I understood that cinema sex is about love, about knowledge of and  discovery of sexuality, not just about erotic scenes,” Novikova says. “This rich character history, the frank work of the actors shook me. I literally fell in love with the lead actress.

“And then Miroslav told me that the movie “Blue Is the Warmest Color” received an award, the Golden Palm in Cannes,” she adds. “I asked him, ‘And what is this Cannes?’ … Miroslav promptly explained it to me. And I lit up. I imagined presenting myself on the red carpet, in a beautiful dress, under flashes of cameras. In my head, it was as if something clicked: Can it be, ‘The Tribe’ — my one and only chance to become a professional actress? It gave me internal strength, and I declared to Miroslav: ‘I will do everything, I want to receive the Golden Palm.’”

With “The Tribe,” Novikova did walk the red carpet under flashes of cameras in a beautiful dress at the Cannes Film Festival.

And another male director convinced (manipulated/exploited) another young female actress into performing nude/explicit scenes…. yet we shouldn’t deny Novikova her autonomy.

The Deaf Community Speaks Out

The most important opinions about this film aren’t mine, they’re those of the Deaf Community. And here the reviews are mixed.

Charlie Swinbourne: Has The Tribe changed what a deaf film can be?

Significantly, there are no subtitles and no voiceover. The audience is asked to understand the film by picking up on the actors’ physical expressions as they sign to each other – almost like watching a silent film. Because sign languages vary in countries across the world, British deaf people are likely to understand as little as anyone else.

At first, this is deeply unsettling. Ten minutes into the film, I wasn’t sure if I could carry on watching it. I’m a film-maker and scriptwriter, and words are important to me. As a deaf person, I also wanted to know exactly what they were signing to one another, and where the plot was going. Having spent hours painstakingly adding subtitles and voiceover to my own films and programmes, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the decision to give no access to the dialogue was a cop-out.

Then I started to pick up on the characters’ relationships, changes in mood, and began to understand what was going on. Cleverly, by removing subtitles the audience is forced to engage more with the deaf characters, to really look in order to understand. I can’t deny that there’s also something I quite like about hearing people being put into a position we deaf people often find ourselves in – having to figure out what is being said.

What’s also different about the film, from a deaf perspective, is how extreme the story is, and the world it depicts. Most deaf programmes or films face restrictions because they are made to be shown before the watershed in daytime hours where signed TV shows tend to be aired. Consequently it’s rare to see a film with deaf characters where adult themes are explored. In my view, the themes are not simply explored for effect in The Tribe – they are justified by the story that’s being told.

Raymond Luczak: NO MORE SAVAGERY, PLEASE: A Deaf person’s review of the film The Tribe

The assumptions that a hearing person, uninformed about Deaf people,  would be encouraged to make on the basis of this film would naturally be very different from the assumptions that a Deaf viewer would make. This is why, whenever hearing people make films about us, we Deaf people are naturally concerned about whether something on the screen will reflect badly on us. The Deaf community in America has been fighting against the closure of Deaf residential schools, which is an important battleground for several reasons. …  For a Deaf person, a language that’s fully accessible is generally more powerful than ties to a biological family that doesn’t make enough of an effort to include her in the family conversations around the table. It is through language, not blood, that we feel whole and connected. In this context, Sergey’s desire to be part of a group who fully understands his language is entirely understandable.

Yet I suspect that for many Deaf Americans still hurting over the closure of certain Deaf residential schools, it would indeed prove troubling to watch a group of Deaf teenagers behave so badly toward each other in this film.

. . .

In this film, almost everyone is exploited, but make no mistake: This is above all an exploitation film made by hearing filmmakers. It is useful to ponder what the term truly means, and I quote Wikipedia here: “Exploitation film is an informal label which may be applied to any film which is generally considered to be low budget, and therefore apparently attempting to gain financial success by ‘exploiting’ a current trend or a niche genre or a base desire for lurid subject matter. The term ‘exploitation’ is common in film marketing for promotion or advertising in any type of film. These films then need something to exploit, such as sex, violence, or romance…” However it may be shot at a cool distance, The Tribe has luridness in spades. It would be most interesting to learn what the Ukrainian Deaf community thinks of the film itself, beyond the thrill of seeing their friends up there on the screen.

 

Gratuitous Abortion Scene

Here we come to the most serious WARNING for those who wish to see The Tribe. No one will be able to convince me that the unbearably long (7 min 30 sec) and gruesome bathtub abortion scene is anything other than an affront to the audience. After an extended argument with her roommate (who we imagine is trying to dissuade her), Anya (pregnant by classmate Sergey, who steals to get the money) heads out alone to the illegal “provider.” The abortionist is a grim and expressionless woman from the Dead Ringers school of gynecological torture. The bathroom is filthy and painted with the same sloppy blue and white institutional paint seen everywhere else. I’ll spare you the full image.

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Hearing Anya cry out in pain and agony was the most disturbing aspect of this savage act (and the entire film). We’ve heard no utterance from her up until this point.

I thought the abortion scene was completely unnecessary, and I’m not the only one. But it follows the Director’s gendered curriculum of boarding school violence: rape (and now gynecological butchery) for the girls, head bashing for the boys.

It took me a while to recover from this scene. But I eventually wondered, was the director trying to say something about abortion in contemporary Ukraine? Seems doubtful to me. It’s actually Russia that has the problem with high abortion rates, according to this 2012 paper:

Divergent Trends in Abortion and Birth Control Practices in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine

Since the end of the 1990s, the Russian government switched to archaic ideology in the area of reproductive health and family planning and neglects evidence-based arguments. Such an extreme turn in the governmental position is not observed in Belarus or Ukraine. This is an important factor contributing to the slowdown in the decrease of abortion rates in Russia.

In the end, I might consider how Ukrainian politics influenced The Tribe, but that would be pointless because I’m no expert. So I’ll let an article from The Ukrainian Weekly have the last word:

There is a scene where two administrators (also mute) who arranged for an Italian visa for two young girl students, ceremoniously trot out the vodka bottle – just like some real life administrators from that part of the world. As we recognize more and more tableaus that ring true, we begin to realize the full tragedy of what we are viewing – this is a film about a society that has regressed to a primitive state, it is about the desperation of people caught in a dysfunctional hell-hole. Who has not been disturbed by the crumbling buildings, the disinterested apparatchiks and other weasels, the quiet desperation of the long waiting lines, and the skinhead punks in Ukraine? – only this time they just happen to all be deaf… Our emotional response is undeniable. And with this, the director has achieved his goal.

 

Footnotes

* … no judgment meant against neurodiverse people who might find this difficult and perhaps frustrating. Which would be an interesting topic, about another community…

** First posted on my ridiculous tumblr as Complete Autonomy or Exploitation in “The Tribe”. After I realized the piece was getting longer (and more serious) than expected, I decided to post it here as well.

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