I find it interesting when people claim to have a hard time watching silent movies since more and more these days, movies find themselves in chaotic third act action sequence that feature barely a single spoken word in between the candy-coloured CGI and hyperactive editing. I guess then that it’s not so much dialogue that people are interested in, or even necessarily sound effects. Rather, it’s just noise. The comforting sound of noise that leads us to put the television on in the background while we cook dinner only to never even glance at the screen. The need for aural stimulation keeps us alert while we’re driving and working out at the gym, keeps us company while riding an elevator, and even soothes us if we use a public bathroom.
It’s fascinating then to plunge into the world of Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s debut feature, The Tribe. It is a film in which character are not only deaf and do not speak, but one which doesn’t ease audiences into the murkiness of their world with subtitles. Rather all of the ‘dialogue’ is ‘spoken’ using sign language and it’s up to the audience to try and follow the story without the aid of cinematic elements we’ve come to expect. In a way it’s an extreme version of a silent picture as our understanding of what these characters are saying to one another frequently only comes in dribs and drabs (much like we might watch two characters in a silent film from the 1920s and only see inter-title cards that explain the very basic gist of their interaction), but there’s also no non-diegetic music. Much like The Artist, the 2012 Oscar winner that really was trying to copy the look and feel (and sound) of silent pictures, vocal dialogue does come into play in one minor, brief moment, but unlike that black and white Hollywood fable, the familiar sound of a human’s voice isn’t a moment of joy, but one of terror.
The Tribe is ultimately a compelling drama about a new boy at a school for the deaf who finds himself at first ostracized by the thuggish cool kids and then one of them. A boy who at first attempts to help a fellow student from being pimped out by another student, but who then becomes the pimp and purchasing sex from her with the proceeds. It’s a tough film, especially the two scenes in which characters cry out, and one that makes its audience feel as lost in its characters’ world as its characters might well be in ours. But it works on another level. One in which is asks the viewer to think about our relationship to cinema and more specifically our connection to it through words. We call movies that aren’t in English “foreign” even though English is only the third most spoken first language. I found The Tribe rather easy to follow once its world was created and the actions of its characters followed the well-beaten path of the corrupted teens. I suspect many viewers will be the same.
It’s amusing that I saw The Tribe just two days before catching up on the Aardman animated flick Shaun the Sheep Movie. Now, these two films have absolutely zero in common by most measures, except when it comes to language and dialogue. The world of Shaun the Sheep, a popular children’s show now being adapted to feature length, is a relatively non-verbal one where characters don’t so much talk as they do infer their meanings with grunts and mumbles. And not just the animals, either. It’s a refreshing take on the kid movie model that is these days nearly punishingly reliant on celebrity voices. The storytelling by writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak is remarkably efficient and traditional dialogue proves unnecessary. A fitting tribute to the zany worlds of Jacques Tati and his unspoken, bumbling Monsieur Hulot as well as the silent movie stars and comedies that came from the silent era onwards. Delightfully colourful and with only a few sequences that are likely to frighten younger audiences, Shaun the Sheep Movie proves to be a delightful film that once again proves manic hysteria needn’t be required to keep children (or adults) entertained.
The final film I wanted to discuss is Clu Gulager’s 17-minute A Day with the Boys. I came across this short film online and figured its reputation – Cannes contender, an inspiration for David Gordon Green – warranted a viewing. It turned out to be one of the best things I have watched a year. A stunningly simple tale of youth that uses its own lack of dialogue to its steely advantage, lending the final sequence a haunting quality that’s not too easy to forget. Its striking visuals, utilising a style that many would lazily label as a rip-off of Terrence Malick, a sea of golden skies reflecting dramatic innocence. It’s a truly a remarkable film and one that better than almost any I can recall makes the audience question our relationship to the necessity of words in cinema.