The Tribe and Outsider Cinema
As you arrive at a restaurant, you receive a message from your friend letting you know that they are running late. “Fine, no problem,” you reply, and it is fine, aside from wishing that they would just turn up now so those people around you looking into each other’s eyes and laughing as they eat don’t glance in your direction and think you’re here alone. The friend appears. You scold yourself for thinking anyone would give a damn about what you were up to and wonder: “Why am I scared of being somewhere alone? Is it the fear of being labelled a lonely outsider, or of actually being alone?”
Many of us are terrified of being outcasts and as cinema vicariously displays our fears and insecurities, it is little wonder that it is littered with tales of loners and misfits struggling for acceptance in societies that shun and marginalise them. When we sit in the dark of the theatre, we are alone, isolated and forced to confront the themes we see on screen; we project our own fears and imagine how it would be to exist as these characters.
Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe (2014), the tale of a school for the deaf in Kiev, is a recent addition to a cinematic trope that has existed from the medium’s beginnings: the outsider film. Performed entirely in Ukrainian sign language and without subtitles, the film is an extraordinary piece of work that provides a rare cinematic experience: it deprives the senses whilst dramatically heightening them. At its midpoint, the viewer reaches a state of elevated alertness and consciousness, having initially been plummeted to the depths of confusion and disorientation after an opening title card declares that there are definitely NO subtitles to aid understanding. The audience has no choice but to try to decipher the emotional and physical meaning behind the casts’ gestures and expressions. Cinemagoers sit in rapt silence, fixated on the characters in the frame, fearful that failing to notice even their smallest twitch might lead to missing some vital piece of the jigsaw.
From the outset, it is clear that The Tribe examines the isolation and marginalisation of the deaf and the young within Ukrainian society. They find kinship, but only in forming gangs that isolate those considered unworthy, thereby dishing out the same treatment that they have previously received within mainstream society. Some critics and commentators argue the film is a parable for the political unrest in Ukraine, but Slaboshpytskiy, who wrote the script in 2011, before the Euromaidan protests which led to the 2014 Ukrainian revolution began, claims he did not consciously attempt to reflect his nation’s struggles.
The opening scene shows Grygoriy, an initially shy and quiet teenager, asking a woman for directions to the school using basic human hand gestures, not sign language. The woman seems vaguely pitying but also mildly frustrated, wanting to get on with her journey and not be stopped by a needy member of the public. This early exchange places us into Grygoriy’s silent world. Like him, we rely on the patience of others and their understanding to help us find our way. It is only when Grygoriy arrives at the school and falls into the alpha-male, mafia-esque hierarchy that exists there that his true character emerges. Perhaps we assume that because so much of his life is spent in silence among hearing people, he would be a subservient meek person. Not a bit of it. Once among his peers, Grygoriy quickly becomes a leading member of a gang of pupils who involve themselves in violence, robbery and prostitution, among other activities. Grygoriy develops into a jealous and at times sadistic gang leader, inflicting brutal violence on those who challenge or defy him.
Grygoriy’s barbaric nature is what makes The Tribe’s plot so effective and what unites it with other outsider films. He is an anti-hero. We may be appalled by his actions, but he is a character empowering himself in the face of incredible adversity, albeit through reprehensible means. This gives audiences a perverse pleasure that they may not wish to admit to, given Grygoriy’s actions and those of other anti-heroes in outsider cinema.
The Tribe contains two unforgettable scenes where characters die due to the simple fact that they cannot hear. In one, a group of students are bludgeoned to death in their dormitories as they sleep, unaware of the murder and mayhem taking place only feet away from them. In another, a gang member is agonisingly run over by a slowly reversing lorry at the truck stop where the girls are pimped. We can see and hear what is going to happen, but they cannot. This is more than just dramatic irony, however. For a large part of the film, the lack of subtitles has lulled us into feeling we are now one with these characters, that by following their form of communication for this long, the playing field has been levelled out. It hasn’t. By shocking us with these sudden horrific scenes, director Slaboshpytskiy is reinforcing the sense of isolation that they experience and reminding us exactly why we fear being in their situation.
Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) is a timeless cinematic example of another type of outsider. He is a drifter on the fringes of society, spending his days and nights with passengers in his cab, yet remaining totally alone. As a yellow taxi emerges from the mist in the film’s opening, Bernard Herrmann’s saxophone score is an ambiguous mix of uplifting, menacing and sleazy whilst New York’s streets glow under lurid neon. Bickle’s darting eyes are framed in close-up, voyeuristically surveying the city. He is in the streets but not part of them. Later, Bickle tells us: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” When he sits with the other drivers in the cafe they frequent, Bickle is mostly silent and his contributions to the conversation around him are brief. He chooses instead to retreat into his own thoughts, looking suspiciously at the black customers or staring at the aspirin dissolving in his glass. As it is for many misfits, being surrounded by people brings him no solace.
Unsurprisingly, Bickle’s approach to women and sex is awkward and painful to watch. However, when he first approaches the object of his affections, Betsy, at the political campaign office she works in, he appears charismatic and charming, a marked contrast to the introverted, angry loner we have seen up to this point. He even enjoys a relatively normal first date, taking Betsy for “coffee and pie”. Bickle aims to be a regular guy: “I believe one should become a person like other people.” And, up to a point, he is able to fit in, but he simply doesn’t know who he is and so it is depressingly predictable when, for their second date, he takes Betsy to a porn film. She walks out, disgusted.
Sex and sexuality in outsider films is a key motif used to indicate the sense of dislocation and separation characters feel within their worlds. It is often a form of stilted, broken communication, the moment that a character displays, in all their cringe-worthy candid glory, their problems. In Happiness (1998) Allen, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, tells his psychiatrist that people find him boring and that he is ignored. No surprise, then, that his sexual activity is reduced to jacking off anonymously to his neighbour on the telephone or to random numbers from the phone book.
In Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001) the titular character, Erica, shares a dysfunctional relationship with her mother whom she lives with. Erica is sexually repressed and masochistic, visiting porno booths, performing genital mutilation on herself and asking to be beaten by her lover. Like Travis Bickle, she works with others but is alone, accompanied only by the tormented thoughts in her head, her icy cool exterior a facade masking her own insecurities. Erica is emotionally stunted, in part due to her relationship with her mother and also as her father resides in a mental facility. She is an outsider and her myriad internal issues manifest themselves in her deviant and painful approach to sex.
In The Tribe, the graphic and frank sex scene filmed entirely in a static shot on a cold boiler room floor between Grygoriy and Anya feels more animalistic than loving. The fact that later in the film Anya is raped by Grygoriy lends the scene an uncomfortably prophetic quality. At this point, Anya is consenting but the lack of tenderness on display shows Grygoriy, like many of cinema’s outsiders, has an approach to sex in keeping with someone who has been alienated throughout his life.
In his film Amour (2012), Michael Haneke shows us that outsiders are not necessarily restricted to the deaf, the dangerous or the deviant. The film charts the relationship of an elderly couple in Paris and is both poignant and incredibly powerful, confronting two of our ultimate fears – isolation and death. While we may watch other outsider films and be thankful that we are not impaired, insane or jealous, Amour reminds us that we must accept ageing and dying. It is a lesson that we are all outsiders in the end; that we will get old, our beauty will fade and we will slowly become invisible.
Amour is alternately bleak and hopeful, summing up the conflicting nature of outsider films. Anne and Georges love each other, sharing each other’s pain and joy, but when Anne suffers a stroke, becoming a pale imitation of the woman she was, George feels alone. Life for him is no longer the same. Anne, as he knew her, is not there to share his final days. The film seems to suggest that as long as we have love, life is worth living, but to be alone is miserable.
Outsider films disturb and fascinate us because they confront our collective fears. These characters are inexorably etched into our minds, and while we may not always sympathise with them or support their actions, we can identify with them as, to some extent, we have all felt on the edge, not accepted, as though we don’t belong. These stories cross the boundary between thinking about a course of action and actually carrying it out, providing a cathartically perverse thrill in witnessing a fictional character go too far. Perhaps this stems from a need to see such irrational yet vaguely understandable behaviour to remind us, when we feel alone, to keep our own lives in perspective and recall the good things. Maybe their allure will always remain inexplicable. But as long as films are made, tales of outsiders will endure and speak to audiences as potently as anything in cinema.
Photograph by The Tribe, 2015