***** out of *****
One of the most appalling legacies of Russian colonisation/dictatorship of Ukraine has, in recent years, been the sexual exploitation of women (often children and teenagers). Add all the poverty and violence coursing through the nation’s soul, much of it attributable to Mother Russia’s tentacles of corruption, organized crime and twisted notions of law, order and government, and it’s not rocket science to realise how threatening the Russian regime is, not only to Ukraine, but the rest of Eastern Europe and possibly beyond. Being a Ukrainian-Canadian who has spent a lot of time in Ukraine, especially in the beleaguered Eastern regions, I’ve witnessed first-hand the horrible corruption and exploitation. (Ask me sometime about the Russian pimps who wait outside Ukrainian orphanages for days when teenage girls are released penniless into the world, only to be coerced into rust-bucket vans and dispatched to brothels.)
The Tribe is a homespun indigenous Ukrainian film that is a sad, shocking and undeniably harrowing dramatic reflection of Ukraine with the searing truthful lens of a stylistic documentary treatment (at times similar to that of Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl).
Focusing upon children, the most vulnerable victims of Russia’s aforementioned oppression, this is a film that you’ll simply never forget. Set in a special boarding school, it paints an evocative portrait of students living within a tribal societal structure (literally as per the title) where adult supervision is minimal at best and even culpable in the desecration of youth. Living in an insular world, carved out by years of developing survival skills in this institutional environment, the kids have a long-established criminal gang culture and they engage in all manner of nefarious activities including, but not limited to, thieving, black market racketeering and pimping.
Writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s mise en scène includes long, superbly composed shots and a stately, but never dull pace. This allows the film’s audience to contemplate – in tandem with the narrative’s forward movement – both the almost matter-of-fact horrors its young protagonists accept, live with and even excel at while also getting a profound sense of the ebbs and flows of life in this drab, dingy institutional setting. In a sense, the movie evokes life as it actually unfolds (or, at least, seems to).
The violence is often brutal and the film never shies away from explicit sexual frankness. We watch the beautiful teenage girls being pimped out at overnight truck stops, engaging in degrading acts of wham-bam without protection, perpetrated against their various orifices by truckers who shell out cash for the privilege. Even more harrowing is when we follow the literal results of this constant sexual activity and witness a protracted unsanitary and painful abortion.
While there are occasional moments of tenderness, especially in a romance that blossoms between one young boy and girl, there’s virtually no sense of hope that any of these children will ever escape the cycles of abuse, aberrant behaviour and debasement that rule their lives. The performances elicited by Slaboshpytskiy are so astonishing, you’re constantly in amazement over how naturalistic and reflective of life these young actors are, conveying no false notes with the kind of skill and honesty one expects from far more seasoned players.
The special circumstances these children are afflicted with also allows Slaboshpytskiy to bravely and brilliantly tell his story completely though the purest of cinematic approaches. Visuals and actions are what drive the film and ultimately prove to be far more powerful than words ever could be. Chances are very good that you’ll ultimately sit there, mouth agape as you realize that what you’re seeing on screen is unlike anything you have ever seen before. The Tribe evokes a world of silence and suffering that is also perversely borderline romantic, a world where connections and communication are key elements to add some variation to a youth culture that is as entrenched as it is ultimately constant and, frankly, inescapable.