by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for The Tribe.
An hour and a half into Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s debut feature film, The Tribe, Anya (Yana Novikova) goes to get a back-street abortion. Her earlier sexual encounter with Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), of which the viewer is forced to witness every last quietly repulsing second, has led to this deaf teenage boarding school girl getting pregnant and resultantly needing an abortion. So, for the next seven minutes and thirty seconds, the viewer is shown every last step in Anya’s abortion – from her knocking on the female “doctor”’s front door, to the entire process, to her pained sobbing once the act is finished – with no cutaways, no camera pans away, and nothing hidden.
It is the worst scene I have watched in a film all year.
I don’t mean this in the way that the director, who was also the film’s screenwriter, intended, where it’s purposefully hard to watch because it’s a distressing and disturbing act that we are having to witness. No, I mean this in the way that this is the worst scene I have watched in a film all year. The moment when it clicked for me that I was about to watch a back-street abortion, about two and a half minutes in, was the exact moment in which I turned against The Tribe completely. It was the scene in which all of the promise that the admirable but still unengaging first hour had shown was promptly flushed down the toilet, as the whole enterprise proceeded to devolve into misery porn with nothing new to say besides a gimmick that only makes its worst moments even more objectionable.
Now, before we proceed further, I need to stress that I am not inherently opposed to the idea of this sequence, in the same way that I am not inherently opposed to any taboo sequence that ends up depicted on film. Film is capable of handling and communicating sensitive topics that we need to be made more aware of in ways that can forward that conversation in a mature, even-handed way. I am currently sick to death of rape scenes (of which this movie also has one because of course it does), but I am not opposed to the idea of them as long as they are handled respectfully and have a paramount importance to the story (although this article has almost convinced me that even that is not reason enough).
The Tribe, however, does not handle its abortion or rape scenes in mature or sensitive ways. Instead, it uses them as simple moments of exploitation, lazy short-cuts for how miserable the film’s characters’ lives are in place of the fact that the film has no subtitled dialogue. In doing so, it also ends up a perfect encapsulation of the film’s many flaws and why, despite its commitment to the idea being technically and formally impressive, its central idea is nothing more than a gimmick designed to feed that exploitation through.
See, The Tribe is purposefully designed to be deliberately distancing and difficult. It’s a film about a Ukranian boarding school full of deaf children who communicate entirely in unsubtitled sign language. On paper, that’s not a bad idea, in fact it’s a fascinating and near-revelatory idea, a story starring and about an oft-unrepresented group of society that sets up its form and conventions in such a way that the viewer is given no choice but to experience the world almost as they do (save for the fact that the film does have diagetic sound). Hell, even applying it to such a well-worn set of paths as those of the “mob”, “sweet teenager led astray”, and “life is a miserable pile of worthlessness” stories isn’t a bad idea, it’s a unique twist that can inject that original kind of perspective into these tired stories if done well.
The problem is that The Tribe doesn’t actually have anything to say, and it certainly isn’t actually interested in using that unique perspective for anything other than formalistic gimmickry. Instead, the film spends its first hour indulging itself visually with technically impressive one-take scenes that almost always last a full minute longer than they need to, before spending its second hour indulging itself exploitatively with scene after scene of “shocking” imagery that has no thematic point besides disturbing the viewer – graphic unedited unhidden underage sex (twice), the abortion (which we will talk about in a second), the aforementioned rape, a final act of violence that is just utterly repulsive.
Again, these sequences would be at least somewhat understandable if The Tribe were a character piece or something that we were supposed to invest emotionally in. But The Tribe is deliberately distancing, and it goes even further than the unsubtitled Ukranian sign language part. The film is almost exclusively shot in these wide long shots that keeps the viewer at a literal distance from the characters, and often reducing the on-screen size of their hands, the most vital way for the viewer to try and figure out each character’s emotions and traits, to mere footnotes. This means that almost all of the characters are interchangeable, lacking in anything that makes them memorable (I found myself frequently having to run back through the film in my head to remember who certain characters actually were when they popped back up on-screen) and consequently undeserving of any curiosity, let alone sympathy.
Which brings us to Anya. There’s a part of me that really wants to slap this film with the misogyny label thanks to how it treats Anya. In a film of non-characters, Anya is the most non-character of them all. One of the two prostitutes that the other characters have to pimp out, she has precisely two roles in this story: to be a willing and unwilling sexual object, and to be something that misery happens to. Everybody else in this story at least get non-degrading things, Anya just gets abused. Abused by a camera that actively shunts her out of focus and attention unless she is naked or engaged in sex, abused by a script that gives her nothing to do (although at least has the decency to have her choose to have the abortion), abused by a director who wants to milk her misery for all that it’s worth. The film does not give a damn about Anya, with it being very telling that the only two non-sex/abortion scenes that she gets to herself are when she finds out she’s pregnant and when she argues with her friend prior to getting the abortion.
Thus, we return to where we started, the abortion scene where everything wrong with The Tribe coalesces into one near-unwatchable segment of film. The sign language proves itself as only being a way to artificially withhold the true purpose of the scene so that it’s more shocking when the realisation that they’re “going there” sets in, the distancing of the camera removes the empathy from the scene instead leaving only a camera that presents in this uncaring and exploitative-feeling way, the lack of true characterisation for Anya leaves her purely as this thing who is suffering a horrible act instead of a woman who the film believes is deserving of our sympathy, and the excessively long take forces us to have to wallow in Anya’s cries and whimpers for so long, the scene keeps running for another 30 to 40 seconds after the operation is done, that it tips over into straight-up exploitation since there’s no thematic reason to spend seven and a half straight minutes on this one scene dedicated to this one act.
There is no reason for this scene to be portrayed and handled the way that it is, unless the intent is purely to shock and provoke (which it is but hold that for a moment). Even though the film is in unsubtitled Ukranian sign language, that doesn’t mean that the film is incapable of communicating that Anya has had an abortion unless it shows the act in unflinching detail. That’s the beauty of cinema, you can just leave little hints and insinuations that it happened without having to show it. Have a sequence of Anya recovering from the operation without actually showing the operation, cut away just prior to the operation once it becomes clear that an abortion is what she is getting, cut away halfway through the operation since we have all gotten the message (if you absolutely must show the operation). But there is no reason to show the full thing whilst lingering on Anya’s painful sobbing.
Unless, of course, the intent is purely to shock and provoke, which it is since the film follows that up with a rape scene, a torture scene, and a sequence in which our lead character walks into two bedrooms of his fellow sleeping men and caves in their heads with a desk cabinet. There’s no thematic reason for any of this, or at least none that justifies this particular set-up and the amount of time the film spends on each of these acts. In a way, that kind of “shock for shock’s sake” reminded me of John Waters, whose Desperate Living I actually did turn off briefly during a sequence in which a transsexual cuts off their newly grafted-on penis with a pair of scissors in unflinching detail. However, Waters has a sort of honesty and playfulness to his work that I find admirable, his films always carrying a sort of open campness that gives off the impression that you are in on some kind of fun joke with everyone else involved with the film, whilst Slaboshpytskiy drowns The Tribe in such self-seriousness that it gives off the vibe that these sequences are a purposeful endurance test for the viewer rather than anything that’s worth a damn.
That’s why the abortion scene is the worst scene that I have seen in a movie so far this year. It reminded me of The Riot Club, a sequence of extreme nastiness that pretends like it’s going to have a point but instead just revels in the exploitation and uncomfortableness for far too long and for no other reason than it can. It’s vile cinema, something I will be more than happy to never have to experience again, and the exact moment in which The Tribe becomes devoid of almost all value.