For most people, silence happens when they become conscious of an absence of sound. This doesn’t mean that they have experienced ‘something’ (the presence of silence), but that they have experienced a ‘nothing’ (the absence of sound). Since John Cage’s famous anechoic chamber experiment in the late 40s, the idea of magically been born into aural consciousness through a moment of silencing, being silenced or confronted by silence has become a trope of expanded awareness. A bevy of artistic projects extolling the revelatory powers of silence carry this legacy like sodden baggage, all joined in celebrating the marvellous things that can happen through being aware of the interrelationships between the sonic and the silent. Does Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s unsubtitled film The Tribe (2014) utilising a group of deaf non-actors perform similarly? Yes – but let’s unpack its aural baggage regardless.
In many respects, The Tribe deserves its accolades. Like so many millennial-crossover neo-globalist critical movies, it is aimed squarely at a film festival context both to impart its message and lever a globalist power position. This is the realm where films defiantly retain regional dress (The Tribe is set in contemporary Ukraine, sited in a dilapidated boarding school for the deaf and the corruptive goings-on in its dormitories after hours) while imparting universalising positivist ideologies (its bleak portrayal of abuse embedded in the school’s educational and social regime is positioned to ‘ring bells’ in nations globally). Millennial-crossover internationalist film festival cinema revels in the theatrics and hysterics of Dogme-style films bent on brutalising audiences to achieve prescriptive reality effects. The Tribe might have no subtitles and no voicing, but its artistic voice is vociferous in its channelling of ‘brutal’ auteurs like Lukas Moodysson, Vitaly Kanevski, Gasper Noe, Philippe Grandrieux, Michael Haneke, Jean-Pierre/Luc Dardenne, et al. Accordingly, it plays out like a pantomime not of the deaf and their tragic circumstances, but of a director and his heroic logistics in staging long Steadicam-shots with a surfeit of choreographed action mostly using available light to label its cinematised results as Art Cinema.
While I could discuss how Miklos Jancso more elegantly deployed choreographed performers and camera tracks to construct metaphoric circles around his silenced/unspeaking actors and performers, I wonder how seriously The Tribe invests in the values and effects of silence. Though the film fascinates with the documentarian-dance of its non-actors whose physical tussling sometimes produces dramatic sparks, its base impulse in story-telling is anthropological. Even though its English title bears this out in contradistinction to the Ukraine title Plemya (meaning breed, race, stock – all with derivations from fire, source, origin), the film eventually resembles a rage therapy workshop conducted for disaffected recalcitrant teens. In this sense, vetoing the audience’s access to dialogue appears designed to symbolise both youth’s deliberation to not speak when spoken to, and respectable society’s inability to listen to youth’s symbolic cries for help through destructive and self-destructive acts (numerous of which are catalogued throughout The Tribe).
But what precisely are the material effects of discounting an audience’s comprehension of dialogue in a narrative film? While The Tribe has been championed for its boldly supportive conceit in refusing to subtitle the characters’ sign language, I remain surprised as to how much was conveyed nonetheless by the performers and their direction. For while the cast is mostly non-actors, any serious actor would thrill to being handed the task of communicating without language (a thrill especially evident in the Dardenne’s Rosetta, 1999, Haneke’s Time Of The Wolf, 2003, and Grandrieux’s The Lake, 2008). Furthermore, bad acting is mostly signalled by poor, inept or ineffectual vocal delivery. The voice is an actor’s instrument: powerful when performed with masterly control; insipid when its power is ungrasped or unperceived by the performer. ‘Silencing’ an actor uncannily imparts performative power.
Interestingly, The Tribe’s soundtrack allows us to hear the voice of the deaf. Their soft growling, hoarse rasping, breathy expulsions and throaty noise score their dramatic exchanges. It’s like porn, but (mostly) without the sex and the dialogue. Mixed with this is their bodily slapping, rubbing, grabbing, pushing. Normally, film dialogue recording attempts to minimize this noisy bodily presence as it interferes with dialogue comprehension, but deaf people – not having recourse to audible directives – must tap, hit or thump someone in order to grab their attention. When an argument ensues – arguments being the primary mode of exchange between the school’s enrolees – there’s a lot of fabric-rustling and limb-slapping. A deeper aural symbolic becomes apparent as the film progresses: the deaf sound their world through percussive means, not through harmonic or tonal means. From their continual arguments, stair-trudging, van door-slamming, physical beating, wood shop working and apartment ransacking, they produce sound through violent sonic means. This has deadly repercussions literally for newcommer Serge, who eventually murders by utilizing the blunt percussive instruments of a wooden hammer he made in the workshop, and the wooden furniture in the unwelcoming dorm rooms.
But maybe The Tribe is evidencing the paucity of interpersonal communication and the debilitation wrought by social determinism irrespective of whether one is afflicted with deafness or simply unable to read the signs of the new world. The only time we see signs of education is in Serge’s first class early in the film. Tellingly, the teacher discusses the formation of the European Economic Community (the blue square with its twelve stars silently sits at the top right of the frame). For Russia and Ukraine, the EEC – especially since its absorption of the European Community in 2009 – constructs a kind of ‘freeze war’ blanketing Eastern Europe, the Baltic States and the former Soviet Union. This is never mentioned again; the only sign of economic enterprise outside of the deaf school is the phalanx of semi-trailer trucks, serviced by the deaf girl prostitutes late at night. Symbolically, the trucks transport goods and values neither glimpsed nor enjoyed by the students at the deaf school. The deaf are thus symbols of isolationism and exclusionism as well as ostracism.
But deafness can profoundly exist beyond the determining symbolism of films like The Tribe. In November 2013, The Junior Eurovision Song Contest took place in Kiev, Ukraine. Ukraine’s own entry was “We Are One”, performed by Sofia Tarasova. The travelogue images projected onto HD multi-screen panoramas on the event’s stage showed a Ukraine quite unlike that depicted in The Tribe. As the youth of Europe sung on stage, outside the Euromaiden protests accumulated into divisive and violent foment, as Ukraine became divided on its future alignment with either the EC or the Russian Federation. Watching The Junior Eurovision Song Contest on SBS-TV in late 2014, I truly felt deaf.