NO MORE SAVAGERY, PLEASE: A Deaf person's review of the film The Tribe
Here in America, I've seen firsthand the ways Deaf people are expected to achieve a great many things with their lives, such as becoming business leaders and attorneys. This is par for the course for many of us, which is why we Deaf people often roll our eyes whenever hearing reporters make a point of shoehorning our successes into clichéd "inspiring" stories of a disabled person "conquering" "against all odds." We all know that the only way anyone wants to succeed, regardless of circumstances, is to stop believing that she is less than the status quo, that she is indeed already equal, no matter what anyone says. I'm with the poet Gwendolyn Brooks when she said, "When you use the term 'minority' or 'minorities' in reference to people, you're telling them that they're less than somebody else." This explains why I avoid using the word "minority" when referring to the Deaf community. (Incidentally, I capitalize the word "Deaf" to refer to Deaf people who use sign language as their primary means of communication, as opposed to deaf people who choose not to sign. The Tribe focuses on Deaf characters.)
Those in hearing society, unfamiliar with what it means to be Deaf, have often proved to be the most significant barrier. I once met a Deaf woman with a Ph.D. who was frustrated in her attempts to find a job in her native Philippines because most people there expected Deaf people—even those with a Ph.D.—to be good enough only for factory work. And I know of a Deaf man in Brazil whose most pressing goal was to become the manager of a McDonald's because that was the height of the glass ceiling for Deaf people in that country.
So when I first learned about Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's The Tribe through the buzz it created at the Cannes Film Festival, I had a number of expectations when it came to seeing Deaf characters in movies. Of course, I'm fully aware that when a Deaf character appears on screen, she is not me, but in the eyes of hearing viewers unfamiliar with Deaf culture or the sign language used in the story, she does reflect me in some ways. This is no different from the way gay people felt about seeing themselves portrayed so negatively in movies, usually committing suicide by the film's end, until LGBT people began to speak up and demand more positive representations in the movies. (Vito Russo's classic The Celluloid Closet is uniquely insightful on this topic, and so is the documentary it inspired, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.)
What happens in The Tribe? In a nutshell, Sergey (Gregoriy Fesenko), a young Deaf man, arrives at a Deaf boarding school. He tries to fit into a group of renegade young Deaf men led by Gera (Alexander Dsiadevich) by engaging in robberies and pimping. When he falls for Anya (Yana Novikova), one of Gera's two concubines, Sergey breaks the rules of "The Tribe" with devastating consequences.
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. In spite of hearing educators trying to impose the speech-only method of learning on Deaf people, Deaf Americans historically attended state residential schools where they lived together 24/7 (with vacation breaks spent with their families), and in doing so, they bonded together fervently through the commonality of American Sign Language (ASL). I remember observing non-signing hearing parents standing awkwardly next to their Deaf children who had just graduated from Gallaudet University, and realizing the degree to which hearing parents had only themselves to blame for not learning how to sign. 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 fact, in the dormitory hall, we do not ever see any adult supervision. This is certainly not how state residential schools for the Deaf are run in America, which is why I hesitate to make a judgment call on the way the Deaf school in the film is run. Isn't the presence of a housemother/housefather the norm for Deaf students after school hours? Or has Slaboshpytskiy decided to omit their presence for a more dramatic effect? Either way the absence of adult supervisors adds to the overall vibe of their so-called "savagery." This certainly evokes the unsettling ethos that reigns in Peter Brook's film Lord of the Flies, which incidentally does a better job of exploring the ways that children who had been raised to be respectful and considerate can evolve into near-savages when adults have disappeared from their lives. Because we see how these schoolboys have tried to behave, we do not initially see them as savages; certainly not in the same way we might view the primary Deaf characters in The Tribe. Again, this is where subtitles would have been most helpful.
Anya and Svetka, the two Deaf women in the group (Yana Novikova and Rosa Babiy), are prostitutes on the side. One of them, Gera, shows Sergey how pimping is done in a parking lot amidst large parked shipping trucks: Knock on the glass of the driver's door and see if anyone wakes up or comes to the window; if a truck driver shows interest in having sex, he pays Gera. Then one of the Deaf women would enter his truck for sex. I find it odd that these two women seem eager to do this kind of work. This enthusiasm appears to be more of a wishful stereotype from a (presumably heterosexual) man's perspective than one grounded in reality; it's my understanding that prostitution is emotionally exhausting work, especially when the sex worker must perform with an unattractive client and must detach herself emotionally from the sex act in order to function. I'd like to have learned how these women were initiated into this line of work. Did they not want to participate at first, or had they felt compelled to turn tricks in order to gain acceptance into the "tribe"—the same acceptance that Sergey craved? This is an important question, because so much screen time is given to the women prostituting themselves compared to attention paid to the male members of "The Tribe" engaging in criminal behavior. How were all these members initiated into "The Tribe" in the first place?
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. An 'exploitation film,' however, due to its low budget, relies more heavily than usual on 'exploitation.'" 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.
On a friend's Facebook page, there was a thoughtful discussion of the film, particularly focusing on the absence of adult supervisors in the dormitory. Cynthia Weitzel speculated whether "the absence of supervision possibly represented the absence of human rights in the region, and how it sets the stage for everything that followed." In the discussion, Alicia Lane-Outlaw pointed out "if this film is indeed an allegory for exploitation of a vulnerable population, the irony is that the film itself exploits a vulnerable population and leaves [the Deaf community] to pick up the pieces."
For hearing people, the notion of silence is powerful. They cannot imagine a world in which they couldn't hear, and if they could imagine such a reality, it's always a world with complete silence. The reality for many Deaf people is quite different; just as hearing loss can occur across a broad spectrum, so does the perception of silence. Most Deaf people have residual hearing to some degree; they can hear some things—just not very well. Silence, at least for me, is not the complete absence of sound that I experience when I turn off my hearing aids (and leave them in my ears), but in the lack of motion around me. Seeing a flicker of light in my peripheral vision, even in a quiet room, does not represent silence for me; in fact, it's quite annoying. It's just as bad as hearing a jackhammer pounding from across the street.
At one point in the film, a huge truck runs over a Deaf character, who is standing with his back to the truck. The incident is totally unbelievable because the scene is predicated on a hearing person's concept of silence in the framework of deafness. In the few minutes before the incident happens, we see the truck's front lights hitting the pavement in front of the Deaf character's feet. He would have turned around a lot more quickly at that moment, but he didn't. (Many Deaf people, after having seen the film, told me that they couldn't believe the character did not feel the weight and vibration on the pavement from such a heavy truck. Incidentally, the character's death did not seem to have any emotional consequences for Sergey, let alone "the tribe." Exploitation, anyone?) The takeaway from this particular scene can only be that it is truly dangerous to be Deaf.
Furthermore, at one point, Sergey enters two rooms. In the first room, he commits a truly shocking act; in the second room, he does it again. I find it totally unbelievable that none of the Deaf people sleeping in these rooms responded to the vibrations created by Sergey's actions. Moreover, some Deaf people awaken without quite knowing why when someone enters their room; the person can exude a very subtle odor that a sleeping person can detect immediately even if she doesn't hear a thing. (It's not clear whether a Deaf consultant was involved with the making of this film, but this is a perfect example of why having a Deaf consultant on location would have been incredibly useful to increase plausibility of such scenes.)
In The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw raises an interesting question about silence as a motif in this film: "The main question is: signing is a language like any other, so why not have subtitles? How is our experience of this different from any foreign-language movie without subtitles? The point, I think, is that their silence underscores their alienation from us. They are a different tribe: outside the law, below the salt. And their silence has something to do with the criminal code of omertà: you don't talk."
In spite of my objections to the way Deaf characters are portrayed in the film, I will give Slaboshpytskiy credit for not showing Deaf characters in social isolation. (There is an unsettling exception in which a student with Down syndrome is rejected by everyone; even more surprising is that Sergey is upset at being thrown into the Down syndrome student's room. Sergey, who himself was rejected, reveals his ableist bent here.) Nevertheless, Deaf people are certainly capable of having many friends. I don't know about you, but if you've ever paid close attention to groups of Deaf people signing, you've noticed how much they love to talk. It's as if their hands can't shut up, and it's absolutely wonderful! And seeing them sign away without encumbrance to anyone is pure bliss for my eyes. It isn't just because I am fluent in ASL, but because I personally know how much of an emotional price each of us Deaf people have had to pay in order to find a home in each other's hands, especially those of us with hearing parents who do not bother to sign. Deaf viewers watching The Tribe will appreciate on a basic level why the main character Sergey would seek acceptance by the group. Yet the film fails to address its story's weakest aspect: If these people had behaved so atrociously toward Sergey mainly because he had fallen in love with Anya, then why doesn't he instead attempt to connect with other Deaf people outside the "tribe"? We catch brief glimpses of other Deaf people of all ages on the periphery of the story, especially in the scene where many Deaf people around their age witness a fight between Sergey and another character, so he'd surely have known that there are many kinds of Deaf people in the community. Why couldn't he go to them for help? If he is seeking a familial connection, a familial acceptance, which I suspect he is, why doesn't he go back to the principal, or other Deaf people in the film? That his hopes to be accepted by the rejecting "tribe" seem incredibly myopic makes him less of a hero. Subtitles would've helped clarify such nuances and motives in the storyline, and would have made the characters seem more like the human beings that they surely are.
Sergey rarely gets what he wants in this film; there is no room for him to maneuver. In fact, he's quite passive in accepting the demands made of him, even when it becomes degrading, as when he catches Anya and a customer in the act. To make a story compelling, its main character must win some, lose some, capped by an ending somehow making a point that the film has been building toward all along. To give you an idea of how relentless its grimness is, I actually clocked the first time I caught sight of a genuine smile—about 62 minutes into the film! I find The Tribe to be the most depressing piece of filmmaking I've seen in decades. (I used to think of Sydney Pollack's film They Shoot Horses, Don't They? as the most depressing film of all time. Not anymore.)
We have the civil rights movement to thank, in part, for creating the national awareness of how Black people are portrayed in the movies, so we are certainly more sensitive to racism in the cultural arena today compared to days gone by. (For instance, today no one could get away with the blatant racism and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan that D. W. Griffiths depicted in his 1915 silent film Birth of a Nation, a huge moneymaker.)
Yet hearing reviewers, almost without exception, do not realize how audist The Tribe is.
What is "audism"? The word was coined by Tom Humphries in 1975, and Wikipedia defines it best: "Audism is the notion that one is superior based on one's ability to hear or to behave in the manner of one who hears, or that life without hearing is futile and miserable (emphasis mine), or an attitude based on pathological thinking which results in a negative stigma toward anyone who does not hear."
Before I delve further into The Tribe, I want to point out a major factor that has often, unfortunately, motivated many hearing filmmakers to create stories about us Deaf people: novelty. Examples abound everywhere, but I'll stick to only one: hearing non-signers focus on learning dirty signs in ASL online, and in one notorious case, a hearing signer has tried to profit from teaching just those signs even though many of her renditions aren't linguistically correct. Because hearing non-signers think it's absolutely hilarious that certain signs show this or that aspect considered "dirty," the result is that they are encouraged to think of ASL as a punch line and nothing more. It doesn't matter if they sign a dirty word in an incorrect way, in much the same way that some people might mispronounce certain words; so can non-signers misform their signs. In fact, they usually do, and they have no idea of the degree to which they are embarrassing themselves. They are not taught to respect the language, nor do they know that in America, the Deaf community nearly lost ASL due to the concerted efforts by hearing educators and the medical establishment to oppress our language in favor of speech, and that countless Deaf people have paid an enormous price for the right to use their mother tongue. This fact is very important to acknowledge when learning ASL, much like the Jewish community's remembrance of the Holocaust, because at one time the Jewish community in Europe was in danger of being completely eliminated during World War II. With this in mind, it will be most instructive to see what Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy had to say about why he made this film. The following quote comes directly from the film's press release materials:
I was thinking about making such a movie 20 years ago. By all means, this is an homage to silent film, where actors were communicating through pantomime. I know, such movies are produced almost every year, successfully or not. However all works I've seen are following the silent movie stylization. For me, the main goal was to make a more realistic, natural silent film, which would be easily understood without words (emphasis mine). The thing is, nowadays there are lots of films, especially TV ones, which you can just listen. And audience is used to that. On the other hand there are films, where all actors stay silent all the time. I've made a silent short film myself. But now, with The Tribe, I've found another path, unique and suitable for my film. Sign language is like a dance, ballet, pantomime, kabuki theater, etc. (emphasis mine) At the same time, there's no grotesque in it—people are communicating that way for real. Besides, according to recent developments in medicine, sign language will be a dead language in perspective. In some time it will cease to exist at all. But I find sign language fascinating (emphasis mine), and I really wanted to share this feeling with the audience (emphasis mine)."
Silent films have always fascinated me. One might think that it's because sound is not required to enjoy these films, it's ideal for Deaf people. There is that, yes, but I enjoy silent films for a very different reason. As a Deaf writer who straddles both worlds of English and its hearing culture, and ASL and its Deaf culture, I am naturally obsessed with language and its power to transform. Therefore, the language of cinema in all its infancy is right there before us, and yet it's exciting to catch the subtle shifts in syntax. The filmmakers are learning how to write the language of light fluently with each shot, each cut, each scene. They are so captivated by this process that they do not always check their racism, sexism, and xenophobia that can be at work when they frame their stories and particularly when they tell actors to perform in a certain way; those in power are accustomed to never having their "–isms" questioned.
I'd like to quote Slaboshpytskiy again (please note the phrase "deaf-and-dumb"—like "deaf-mute"—is an unacceptable term in America):
It's been my old dream to do homage to the silent movie. To make a film that can be understood without a single voiced word. It's not that I was thinking about some kind of a European "existential" movie in which the heroes would keep silence throughout half the film. And besides, actors were not silent in the silent movie. They communicated very actively through a wealth of byplay and body language. They could communicate emotions and feelings without a line to say. And it is not by incident that most of silent movie stars had come from the pantomime. This is exactly why I've always wanted to shoot a film about the life of deaf-and-dumb people. With no speech and with no subtitles. And with the participation of real deaf-and-dumb people.
It's clear that he seems to have confused sign language with pantomime. Almost any sign language may appear to be pantomime to the uninformed eye, but it is indeed not; it is a foreign language in its own right, complete with vocabulary, syntax, and idioms. Pantomime does not require the knowledge of signs to be understood. If sign language were truly pantomime, as Slaboshpytskiy seems to have implied here, then why was I unable to follow the "pantomimes" in his film? Incidentally, the only time that I felt I understood what was being said in Ukrainian Sign Language was when the woodwork teacher (Alexander Panivan) instructed his students about safety measures in his classroom prior to the camera pulling back to reveal the students sanding down their own wooden hammers. The light was clear, and the context was clear.
There is also another story that's readily apparent but not always articulated when talking about silent films, and that is how the vaudevillian style of acting began to transform itself into a more naturalistic style. When the nickelodeons began to catch on, vaudeville performers onstage had been accustomed to projecting their voices and gestures without the aid of microphones to the farthest reaches of a theater so when they began to perform before the loud cameras, they, too, assumed that they had to act the same way with their bodies. Then filmmakers, having tired of shooting scenes as if capturing the action all at once, as if onstage, began to experiment with the notion of cutting together two different shots to say something different. Context became even more crucial. Suddenly close-ups of actors performing in the vaudevillian style of acting began to look ridiculous. Such unnatural performing became even more distracting with technological advancements in both cameras and lights, combined with a stronger appreciation of lighting techniques, and actors began to tone down their oversized expressions. They began to look less like two-dimensional characters and to behave more like real people.
All this brings me to another major issue I have with The Tribe: With very few exceptions, nearly all the scenes are shot from a certain distance, as if this were intended to be an homage to the early days of cinema. Many scenes aren't lit very well, and in fact, some scenes show Deaf characters signing from behind. Regardless of whether we know their language, we cannot see what they are signing. This is comparable to listening to a voice-over track with phrases and sentences fuzzed over here and there; you cannot quite follow what is being said. That nothing is voiced or subtitled in the film at all is an admirable concept that the Deaf community would love to see more of, if only to redress the fact that so many hearing films are inaccessible to us, but in this case, it doesn't work. The "fascinating" aspect of seeing a sign language we don't know, on top of having been shot in such a way that often prevents seeing the hands of the person signing, only contributes to the film's novelty factor; nay, becomes part of that long tradition of hearing filmmakers always in search of the exotic, the freaky: "Look at these people signing! We don't know what the hell they are saying, but it looks so fascinating [a word Slaboshpytskiy used himself]. Let's watch and try to figure out what they are saying." As a result, those of us who don't know Ukrainian Sign Language are forced to make a lot of assumptions while watching the story. (No, sign language is most assuredly not universal; in fact, most countries have their own sign languages.) If Slaboshpytskiy wanted to make a film that "would be easily understood without words"—his words again—he has failed miserably in this attempt.
I have been using ASL for over thirty years, long enough to have been exposed to a wide variety of comments and attitudes about sign language, and one of them—"a dance, ballet, pantomime, kabuki theater," quoting Slaboshpytskiy here—is a common remark made by hearing people. For us signers, a sign language is not so much a ballet or pantomime; it is a bona fide language, just like any other. I once met a hearing stage director who had the mistaken concept of having Deaf characters talk onstage and move fluidly, rather like ballet dancers, at the same time. I asked her if she wanted Deaf audience members to be able to comprehend these performers onstage. "Yes, of course," she said. "Then they need to stand or walk slowly," I said, "because we need to see what they are saying. No shoulders blocking the signs." She still didn't quite understand my objection. I responded by stretching the syllables with my voice: "Ooooh, this is soooo great that weeee arrrrre talkinggggg soooo beeeeeoootifullyyyy. The English sounds atrocious, right? But you seem to want to do the same thing to ASL." My explanation upset her, partly because I was ruining her director's "vision" (and dismantling one of her misconceptions about sign language), but I had to remind her that as long as she didn't know ASL herself, it would be incredibly presumptuous of her to have any authority over the "elocution" of ASL if she expected full accessibility for the entire audience. I was reminded of her situation when I watched how the signers were staged in The Tribe. I don't get the sense that Slaboshpytskiy truly cared about full information accessibility here; most, if not all, Deaf filmmakers would have framed this film very differently. One of the things I love most about the Deaf community is how important it is to have everything clear and accessible no matter the form. Sometimes it's a matter of better lighting, a quieter corner, or writing back and forth on a notepad (some people text instead for conversations). It's the same with films, which is why foreign films with subtitles are such a godsend; in a way, these subtitles bring deaf audience members to the same level as hearing people who don't know the language being spoken in the film.
I'd like to make one other remark about the distance between the performers and the camera. In the early days of silent cinema, the static wide shots were a necessity for two reasons: The cameras back then were huge and heavy, and they required a lot of light. That is no longer true, and I recall a few scenes in The Tribe where the camera was handheld. But that's not my focus here. Part of my problem with the film stems not only from the fact that its characters are two-dimensional, as in either good or bad, with no in-between or emotional complexity, but also that we, as audience members, are rarely permitted to come closer and absorb their faces, the inner essence of their being, long enough to feel a kinship, a deeper empathy. I'm aware that my expectations as a filmgoer have been shaped by American and Western European films, which are shot and edited differently, and that this technique of keeping a certain distance between camera and character is considered a hallmark of Eastern European cinema, but there's something else to consider: Distance is a very powerful tool in the language of film—and in society itself. I'm much more interested in the latter for a simple reason. In the 1970s, when gay people in America were being ostracized for demanding equality on the legal front, Harvey Milk shared a very simple idea that was pure genius: "Come out to everyone you know." Why is that idea so powerful? Because it forced family, friends, and coworkers to stop seeing gay people as evil, easily portrayed from a distance in the media by homophobic conservatives, and begin seeing them as people just like other friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members. Once that started happening, heterosexuals began to examine their own homophobia and created a ripple effect that hasn't stopped moving ever since. I thought about this a great deal while watching The Tribe. Because we are not allowed to come closer and know these characters as people, the impression of these Deaf characters as "savages" remains far too pungent. (In some underlit scenes, I couldn't figure out which character was which because they were all wearing black! Thus, the raves over Valentyn Vasyanovych's cinematography puzzled me.) As long as a great deal of misinformation about Deaf people continues to exist out there, the Deaf community has every right to be concerned about how they are portrayed. Once committed to film, a misinformed portrayal is there forever to be seen and replicated (consciously or not), which explains why so many hearing screenwriters have perpetuated stereotypes about Deaf (and disabled) characters in their own work. Most hearing writers these days have thankfully become sensitive about the need to strive for accuracy in cultural representations of communities not their own, which is why they often do their homework when crafting their stories. As much as I applaud Slaboshpytskiy for "listening" to the Ukrainian Deaf community and incorporating some of their stories into his script, it is indeed unfortunate that his audist bias comes through loud and clear: Deaf people are best appreciated from a distance. They are not truly people; just savages reduced to their basic survival needs. This impression is deepened by the fact that the film is not subtitled. Having members of any community reduced to two-dimensional characters is never a good excuse to call a film "powerful," especially when it reinforces the concept that "life without hearing is futile and miserable," as Wikipedia has so defined audism.
In order to combat audism in their work, hearing filmmakers and producers must be willing to seek far more input from Deaf consultants, especially where signers are framed for maximum legibility. Having the bottom space of their signing cut off is akin to hearing a person speak and having her voice suddenly cut off in mid-sentence for no reason whatsoever. An editor truly familiar with the sign language used in a film would know where to make the cuts, as opposed to cutting because it looks "better." Such botched cuts and badly framed shots of signers are among the hallmarks of hearing filmmakers solely interested in the novelty of using Deaf characters in their work and nothing more. They may claim to be genuinely interested in working with Deaf people in their projects, but as long as Deaf people and consultants are not given equal voice in the process, these hearing filmmakers would be rightly accused of inflicting their audist and ableist bias. The bottom line with The Tribe: A hearing person wrote and directed a film about Deaf people much in the same way that a white person might have made a film about Black people a century ago. I wonder how the African-American community would feel if the Deaf characters in The Tribe were replaced with hearing Black characters whose speech wasn't clear at all without any other change in the script. The story would be considered racist because they have been reduced to savages who don't know any better. So why is it more acceptable to portray Deaf characters in this light?
Thus it has been incredibly puzzling that this film has been winning film festival awards. Obviously, the voters are most likely hearing, but three reasons do come to mind.
The first reason: Novelty. Look, Ma—no subtitles, no voiceovers, no music! It may prove enlightening to look at what some hearing reviewers have said about the film. Peter Bradshaw, writing about the film for The Guardian, said:
…all the rows and confrontations are conducted in sign language, and this is what accompanies the fistfights—there are no subtitles, no intertitles, no explanations. And there is no orchestral soundtrack or incidental music. The whole thing happens in eerie quiet, as if on another planet (emphasis mine): it is like a nature documentary with the sound turned down. The film unfolds to the continuous accompaniment of shoes squeaking and shuffling on lino floors, in squalid institutional dorm corridors where the doors open outward, like animal cages. There are inchoate non-verbal whispers, or grunts and gasps of anger and pain. (Emphasis mine) I couldn't help remembering the quotation attributed to Nietzsche about dancers being thought insane by those who can't hear the music.
Justin Chang of Variety remarked that "we could be watching a bizarre dance performance as enacted by a silent flash mob." But Tomas Hochard of Slant Magazine makes an interesting point:
That Slaboshpytskiy ultimately succeeds at keeping us engaged doesn't, however, do away with the problems of making the audience approach these characters through such a layer of incomprehension. The film never entirely justifies why those who can't read sign language must experience the story so differently from how the characters live it. (Emphasis mine) It never quite brushes off the obvious question of why, in the effort of putting a marginalized set of characters on screen, we should limit our understanding of them.
Jordan Hoffma wrote in BadAss Digest:
The gals don't seem to be upset about their exploitation. They get gifts, like cheap, tacky souvenir T-shirts when another older guy comes back from a trip to Rome. We're conditioned to think of these women as victims, but since we only somewhat understand what they're saying, it's harder to know how they feel— harder to know what's a face for others, since we rarely see anyone by themselves …Slaboshpytskiy's decision to keep everything at a remove may be seen as overkill for a movie that is already intentionally distancing, but it enhances the notion that everything you are seeing is in some weird, far away universe…. One lengthy scene—something of a Fight Club moment—has a scuffle in the foreground and a gaggle of kids watching on the side of some industrial hill. The assembled crowd is all furiously communicating with one another, and the sequence goes on for so long that it extends beyond being an ethnographic film. It becomes a peek at something unusual in nature. I don't want to sound flippant, but the image is so unpredictable that to my untrained eye it felt like watching a cordoned-off area in a zoo. I know this may read as cruel, but that isn't my intention. From a purely visual point of view, it is a stretched-out glimpse at humans behaving in a way I've never really seen before. (Emphases mine)
For Indiewire, Eric Kohn said:
By avoiding closeups, the filmmaker makes it clear that their entire bodies define their identities …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. (Emphases mine)
In Film Comment, Jonathan Romney concludes his review with this statement: "Silence never felt so savage."
The second reason for the praise the film has received is the unchallenged concept of "normal." Most hearing people have always seen disabled people as somehow less than them; therefore, any film that reinforces this ableist view, however subtly or unintentionally, is always a good thing, especially when a disabled character "conquers" her own disability; and it is all the more inspiring when the action is portrayed by an able-bodied performer. How many Academy Awards have been bestowed on such performances? In this case, however, the Deaf characters in The Tribe are played by Deaf actors performing for the first time. As long as hearing (and able-bodied) filmmakers continue to believe that their way of thinking is considered "normal," that their own existence trumps anyone else's way of living, they will continue to consider it their birthright to make films about Deaf (and disabled) people even if it perpetuates their audist (and ableist) bias which in turn hurts the Deaf (and disability) community in the long run. The concept of "normal" is dangerous because it's the root of audism, homophobia, racism, and so on. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that if a Deaf person couldn't speak, it was because she had substandard intelligence. That misconception alone set back Deaf people for centuries, and it wasn't until Charles-Michel de l'Épée had the seemingly radical idea of educating Deaf people not through speech, but through their native language of signs in Paris, France, that such prejudices subsided at all. Deaf people were suddenly proven to be educable and far more intelligent than anyone had imagined.
And the third reason for the film's critical success is that it contains a few scenes that are truly gut-wrenching to watch. There is a scene involving an abortion in a woman's kitchen. The abortionist, who knows signs, takes a gnarly rope hanging from outside the kitchen window and fashions it in such a way that both ends have a loop. The pregnant Deaf woman sits on the counter and lifts one foot through the loop, slides the rope behind her neck, and slips her foot through the other loop. There she is, curled up like an animal yet with her knees up in the air, awaiting the abortionist to do her work, which she does. (This is one of the few times when I was grateful for the distance between camera and action.) The entire scene, from arrival to the apartment to the kitchen and the abortion itself, was shot impressively in a single take. When the deed is done, the abortionist leaves the kitchen without asking if she is all right, and the Deaf woman breaks down in sobs. To my recollection, it's the only time we hear a Deaf person use her voice in the film. A Deaf filmmaker once shared her belief with me that if Marlee Matlin hadn't suddenly used her voice when she argued with William Hurt for the last time in the Randa Haines film Children of a Lesser God, she wouldn't have won her Oscar. She could've signed gibberish even if her lines were voiced by Mr. Hurt. I imagine that Ms. Matlin's speech in real life wouldn't be perfect, therefore seeing a beautiful woman unleashing her angry, animal-sounding voice for the first time—and in the film's final confrontation at that!—must've been a quite considerable jolt for the voting members of the Academy.
Perhaps it's no surprise that The Tribe is getting attention because savagery, especially when reduced to silence and mystery, seems powerful, almost noble.