The Tribe
A still from The Tribe.

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Ukrainian film hasn’t had much luck in the 24 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, although right now this is probably the least of the country’s problems. But amid the political and economic crises triggered by the Maidan revolution a masterpiece has emerged precisely when nobody expected it. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe began its career at the 2014 Cannes festival, just as Russia annexed the Crimea and the strange “separatist” war unfolded in the Donbass. Film critics raved at the brilliance of the violent tale, which concerns a group of teenagers living in an orphanage for deaf-and-mute children (the dialogue is conducted entirely in their own sign language), engaged in nasty mafia activities from extortion to prostitution, pimping and murder. Inevitably, the critics tried to interpret the film as an allegory of the country’s upheaval.

But, as Slaboshpytskiy explained to me, it was two years in the making and even if some scenes were shot in November 2013, just as the Maidan protests began, the film was not inspired by the revolution. In fact, The Tribe owes more to the post-communist 1990s: it’s an attempt to describe what happened to society after the fall of Soviet rule. “There was a romanticism to the 1990s,” Slaboshpytskiy says. “Everything seemed possible.” It’s hard now to believe there was anything romantic about the period. Ukraine, the “granary of the Soviet Union”, a country rich in natural resources, has fallen into dire poverty. Industry was liquidated or privatised, standards of living and life expectancy fell dramatically, and the result was a shocking surge of mafia-style crime. For the teenagers in The Tribe, corruption and violence seem utterly obvious, starting from an early age. The older exploit the younger and the stronger exploit the weaker. The older boys deal directly with the adult mobsters from outside the home and make their eager female peers prostitute themselves, while the younger kids sell tat on trains. Any disobedience or attempt at cheating is severely punished. Children grow up to repeat the same abuses and the circle closes. The arrival of a newcomer raises hope that this world might be transformed, but he turns out to be even worse than his oppressors.

International critics may think The Tribe emerged out of nowhere, but Ukraine has a rich film tradition, from the influential early-20th-century aesthetics of Dziga Vertov and Alexander Dovzhenko to the Odessa-based Kira Muratova. Slaboshpytskiy has a background in TV crime reporting, a job he took on as a way of making money during and after film school. “I wanted to make a movie on organised crime and mafia,” he says. The suffocating world of the deaf teenagers created a perfect opportunity. “I had an idea for this film for 20 years. I once visited a similar orphanage and was fascinated by it. I had a specific concept of a silent movie.” And it works – dealing with the most basic feelings of love, hate, betrayal, corruption, the film is perfectly understandable without any dialogue.

“I wanted to make a film from the perspective of a hearing person who has no access to this world,” Slaboshpytskiy says. “Deaf people directly exchange feeling and emotions we can’t understsand – it feels like a miracle.” Reviewers complained about the lack of subtitles or voiceover, but Slaboshpytskiy dismisses these criticisms: “imagine a ballet with the libretto read over it”. The Tribe fascinates in the way it combines seemingly opposite tones. One is an atmosphere of fear, control and hierarchy; a lack of solidarity or positive feelings between the youngsters, apart from the rawest emotions, where even love and desire become just another form of violence and control. The other is of a bizarre fairy tale: the action takes place mostly at night, the sign language is conducted in silence, where the only sounds we hear are aggressive clasps of hands and nervous breaths. The crisp, clear photography, in surroundings of post-communist ruination, grimness and walls with paint flaking off, makes every gesture seem meaningful. “If a director thinks in categories of metaphor, he will make a bad movie,” says Slaboshpytskiy. “I cut off the scene before the viewer has a chance of understanding it.”

I ask Slaboshpytskiy about the almost total lack of adults in his film, something that drew comparisons with Lord of the Flies. To me it suggested more the abandonment of the kids by the state, forcing them to support themselves. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a wave of homelessness, with kids begging, addicted to cheap drugs and prostituting themselves. They were called “the generation without protection”, where protection – krysha in Russian – also means “head”. In that sense, the abandoned children of The Tribe mirror the corrupted post-Soviet world. Slaboshpytskiy explains it in a more prosaic way: “When you’re a kid or teenager, adults are irrelevant, peer group is everything.” Adults only appear at the beginning of the film, when the school year starts. We see the students attending only one class, which happens to be geography. It’s a nice lesson in geopolitics as well – the teacher points to Ukraine, then to Russia, then to Europe. But the students couldn’t care less and they don’t even look at the map – they know it has nothing to do with their lives.

As the first Ukrainian film in some time to get international recognition, it will also get a limited American release. “There’s a funny thing about sex and violence in this film – because it’s not like action-film violence, but it’s very realistic, it got a maximum +16 rating in France, while Blue Is the Warmest Colour [a French art-house hit including graphic scenes of lesbian sex] got only +12.” At the same time, Americans have no problem with violence, but they have reservations about realistic sex scenes. What I found most striking is how The Tribe’s combination of violence, prostitution, rape and other horrors leaves its young characters mostly unfazed. Such scenes were Slaboshpytskiy’s daily bread when he worked as a crime reporter. “I saw much worse stuff than in the film,” he recalls. “But in fact you will find no more violence in my film than in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.”

What most commentators miss about contemporary Ukraine is that the 1990s never really ended. A country poorer than everywhere in Europe apart from Moldova, its economy didn’t change and has got worse since the war began. “To me the 1990s were sweet because people really believed things might change,” says Slaboshpytskiy. “Everybody was a capitalist, although nobody had any money. We believed in ‘freedom’ without thinking about what it was. People opened up to western culture, we had free speech, but life had no regulations.” This much-awaited west never really arrived – and still remains mythical and unattainable. In the film, the faces of the children light up when they see western goods. In one scene a pimp arrives back from Italy, shows off pictures on his MacBook and gives a pair of tacky T-shirts with “Italia” printed on them to two girls he’s asked to travel with him to work as prostitutes. They react with prolonged and deeply unsettling euphoria. The west is so desirable that it almost doesn’t matter why they are going there.

“This is what happens when you have your government and institutions turn into a mafia,” says Slaboshpytskiy. “In the film we have the lowest level of it. Corruption is how the tribe is built. At the same time, this is a very vulnerable mafia. It’s also a film on what happens when your own government has a monopoly on violence.” In this light it’s curious that the film was co-financed by Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov. “I didn’t contact him directly, of course, but applied to his foundation,” says the director. “They have many programmes, like fighting against tuberculosis and various other humanitarian efforts.”

Oligarchs doing the state’s job are not unusual in post-communist republics, but Slaboshpytskiy’s film, despite its bold, experimental form, also received money from the state. Ukraine’s new government, fighting a war on its eastern borders, has decided to finance only Ukrainian-language films from now on. I wonder how they’d classify The Tribe. The new law also means Myroslav won’t be able to realise his next project, on Chernobyl, the way he’d planned. But whichever way he makes future films, Ukraine has gained a voice, one that speaks previously unspoken and unheard truths.