Film review: The Tribe - wordless horror in boarding school

Director's shattering debut - set in Ukraine, starring non-professional actors and entirely in sign language - is definitely not for everyone (imagine Michael Haneke adapting Lord of the Flies), but also unforgettable

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2015, 11:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2015, 6:09pm

There are some films you just can't look away from, no matter how much you may wish to. Set in a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf teenagers, starring non-professional actors and conducted entirely in anguished sign language — with no subtitles, music or exposition — this shattering debut by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky is a daunting prospect to say the least.

WARNING: Trailer contains nudity

After an opening title card that introduces the film's stark, wordless world, we meet new pupil Sergei (Grigoriy Fesenko) as he's plunged into a hellish first day. Bullied, robbed and beaten by the cabal of older boys ruling the school ("The Tribe" of the title), Sergei has no choice but to fall in line: stealing, fighting and prostituting fellow pupil Anya (Yana Novikova) and her friend Svetka (Rosa Babiy), despite his growing feelings for her.

Caught in the unblinking gaze of Slaboshpitsky's camera, and with no conventional dialogue to add context or comfort, Sergei's journey from innocent to instigator feels tragically inevitable.

Mostly it involves looking on with documentary detachment as the boys' institutionalised cruelty curdles into a cycle of repeated violence.

Imagine Michael Haneke adapting Lord of the Flies and you might have some sense of its chilly compulsiveness. Exhibiting a fascination with underage bodies, The Tribe is undeniably flawed and definitely not for everyone. But it's also a film that, once experienced, can't be unseen.

The Tribe opens on July 30