I have finally seen Steve McQueen’s “Hunger.”
(I would have, should have seen it sooner if Blockbuster Online knew what they were doing, but that’s another story.) Thank you IFC Films for bringing it to cable (although I’m truly mystified as to why it was then showing on the Sundance Channel and not IFC.)
I think all of the above was verbal procrastination.
While I feel compelled to write about this haunting and powerful film and its images are seared into my brain, at the same time they are images that one would much rather turn away from than examine too closely. It is as difficult to think about as it was to watch.
Following an obviously frightened, newly convicted IRA “terrorist” from his arrival on the H block in Northern Ireland’s infamous Maze Prison, with no exposition or back story, the film thrusts you, unprepared into that world. The inhabitants of this section of the prison, Republicans all, most in their early twenties, are staging what became known as a “no wash” and “blanket” protest. When his demand to wear his own clothes,as a political prisoner would have been allowed to do, is denied, along with his refusal to wear a prison uniform, Davey Gillen becomes another “blanketman.” They spend their days nearly naked, clad only in a towel or a blanket, enduring beatings and abuse and squalor. They escalated their protest by refusing to properly dispose of their “slops.” (The cells have no plumbing.) They tipped their urine under the cell doors into the corridor and smeared the walls of their cells with their own waste. (It is utterly amazing to me that anyone could not only spend years in such an environment, but could have eventually been released back into the world and expected to live anything close to a normal life.) All of this is depicted while broadcasts of Margaret Thatcher’s responses to the protests are heard in voice over.
In 1981 they took their demands to another level: the hunger strike.
McQueen’s vision is quite simply stunning, as is the authenticity and breathtaking dedication that Michael Fassbender displays as Bobby Sands, the leader of the hunger strike and the first to die, on May 5 1981, (by which time, as well as being a convicted IRA prisoner, he was also an elected Member of Parliament.)
McQueen allows what is tacit and implied in each scene to emerge unforced, trusting that what we see will eventually make us understand. A man in rubber boots and protective clothing is in the prison corridor. He wears a face mask. He sprays the urine-drenched floor with disinfectant then takes a broom and starts to push this foul mess in front of him, cleaning the corridor as he goes. There is no dialogue, only the sound of the broom and the floor and after perhaps 10 or 20 seconds you think the scene will cut away or that something dire is about to happen, but neither thing does. The man continues the whole length of the corridor, the light playing on the liquid running at his feet, so disgusting you can almost smell it. With this long, wordless and nearly serene moment, you are made to think of how ordinary tasks, something as regular, methodical and commonplace as cleaning a floor, are contiguous with the most unimaginable horror. Behind the doors the man with the broom passes are human beings living literally in shit.
If the corridor scene is quiet and reflective, others are disturbing in the sheer ferocity of their violence. We are shown explicitly what it means to be punched and kicked and humiliated. There is nothing stylized in the beatings meted out to the protesting prisoners. The impact of each blow is felt. You shudder as contact is made, you hold your breath along with the inmates as they wait for the moment the cell door opens and they are dragged out, naked and defenseless, and then pounded into semi-consciousness before being thrown back into their putrid cells.
The prison officers are depicted as angry and vengeful and without being told, we know that they were certainly almost exclusively Protestant with loyalist ties, not to mention taking out their rage at having to work in such conditions on the prisoners themselves. Over the course of the protests and hunger strikes the IRA killed 18 prison officers. The guard we are introduced to at the beginning of the film checks his car for bombs before getting in it and you know this has become part of the routine of his daily life, a life that may hold power and influence within the walls of the prison but outside of them, hangs by a thread.
The film’s central figure is Bobby Sands. Sands probably did more to turn the tide of the republican struggle than any other individual. His death brought worldwide attention and sympathy that would eventually lead to Sinn Fein’s political success.
It’s previously been documented that I am a huge Michael Fassbender fan. I am now in awe of him. His physical tranformation for this role has already received a great deal of praise, and rightly so. There are shots where he looks exactly like photographs taken of prisoners in Auschwitz. However, his real achievement, in my opinion, is in his portrayal of Sands’ unsentimental idealism and determination.
There is a scene between Sands and Fr. Moran (Liam Cunningham whom I’ve seen in Attila and Dog Soldiers) that comes at about the film’s midpoint, where Sands announces his intention to go on hunger strike and die if necessary. It’s as unexpected as the long corridor scene. It consists of both actors sitting at a table, silhouetted by the light coming in through the windows. It’s two intelligent men with opposing moral and political views, in a wary sort of verbal sparring match, squaring up, jabbing, neither able to land the knockout blow, the shadow of what will shortly transpire hanging over them. The scene is a long one, again unusual, and after the back and forth, the camera settles on Fassbender’s face, only half of which is visible. He is absolutely mesmerizing. I found it impossible to look away from him as he tries to convince the priest that he understands what he is doing and that when he begins his hunger strike he intends to go all the way. It is understood that the priest is talking to a dead man.
McQueen makes no explicit judgment of Sands, instead allowing him to emerge undiminished in body or spirit, despite the ravages upon both, which makes his death all the more heartbreaking.
This is a powerful little film. It is as dirty as the protests it illuminates. “Hunger” is, however, blunt and beautiful.