Steve McQueen’s film Hunger (2008) touches on some of the wider issues surrounding the hunger strikes by Irish republican prisoners of war in the H-Blocks in 1981, but focuses primarily on the figure of Bobby Sands, who was the C.O. on the blocks there, and who became one of the central figures in modern Irish republicanism. A brief recap of history is given at the beginning of the film. Republican prisoners are protesting for recognition of their political status and thus refuse to wear prison uniforms or do prison work like common criminals. McQueen employs excerpts of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s public proclamations that “crime is crime is crime” and so forth, and succeeds in making her sound ridiculous simply by letting her speak for herself, in her arrogant, slightly sarcastic tone. Ultimately it is Thatcher who stands behind all of the misery and the horror inflicted on the prisoners. She is like the ghost in the machine, the voice that informs the brutality of the H-Blocks, although it is the screws, the prison guards, who enact her will. It is this will that Bobby Sands will finally have to confront. Though he ended up dead, and Thatcher still lives, Sands has emerged in history as the true victor. And while McQueen is concerned to portray the common humanity of everyone involved in this conflict, he also clearly sees Sands as the film’s hero.
McQueen cleverly takes his time before we encounter Sands (played by Michael Fassbender). It is a non-linear approach (which made me think of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line somewhat). The opening scenes are of a screw (a prison guard) suffering the negative repercussions of the oppressor in an oppressing situation. He wants to pretend his life is normal — there is a scene of a breakfast, in painstakingly slow detail. But there is no conversation between the man and his wife, who serves him. Instead, in a moment of brilliance on McQueen’s part, our view is suddenly below the table (yes, we are now viewing the situation from the beneath the dining room table) where we witness some crumbs falling on the man’s lap. The clarity of the shot is shocking. Our perspective is off-kilter but clear. How else are we to view such a fucked-up situation? Something is not quite right here. The house is like a morgue, a dead environment; there is nothing to say. The action that occurs is below the level of human communication; crumbs fall silently. Upon leaving for “work,” the guard checks under his car for explosive devices, as many had to do at that time in the fractured society of the North of Ireland, Belfast, circa 1981. The wife looks worryingly from the window as he gets in and drives off to another day of torturing. Yet these people too are human beings — human beings in a society in conflict, who have consciously taken a side and a role in that conflict.
After the guard enters the Maze Prison (the H-Blocks), the point of view changes. Now we observe a republican prisoner by the name of Gillen being checked into the Maze. He is made to strip naked as two or three screws eye him almost, no not almost, salaciously. The process of undressing is painfully slow and deliberate. McQueen does not let us hurry through this. Being a prisoner of war, the man refuses to wear the uniform of a common criminal so is branded a “non-conforming” prisoner, is given a blanket (which will be his sole garment), and joins the no-wash blanket protest presently underway in the jail. The one and only moment of the film that seems a little off occurs when Gillen meets his cellmate, a long-haired, blanket-clad, fellow IRA man. For some reason, he is cold towards Gillen, when he probably would have been glad for the comradeship. And when the man speaks in Irish, Gillen seems confused, as if he’d never heard the language before. In actuality, even if he didn’t speak Irish fluently, he’d have been well aware of it from his school days and from the numerous Irish-speakers in the republican movement and the wider nationalist community. He would also have been well aware that the prisoners in the Maze spoke it as often as possible (and even conducted classes in it for those POWs who were still learning).
We can easily forgive McQueen this brief lapse. The bleak reality of life as an Irish republican prisoner throughout Hunger is portrayed with precision and a keen aesthetic sense. With few other means at their disposal, the prisoners in rebellion smear their cell walls with shit; inedible food is dumped in a corner and becomes a spawning ground for maggots. The piss from the prisoners’ slop buckets is poured under the door and out into the halls. Someone’s job is to clean it up, and McQueen again tests the viewer’s comfort level by showing this process from start to finish — a prison worker suited head to toe puts down some cleanser, scrubs with a type of broom, inevitably pushes the urine and chemical mixture back under the cell doors. Meanwhile prisoners are routinely beaten, given forced baths with harsh detergents, forced haircuts, and are anally raped under the guise of “strip searches.” The amount of abuse is incredible, but the prisoners, intensely politically motivated, resist. They endure subhuman conditions with nothing but a blanket to wear, they pour urine out their cell doors, they smear their shit on the walls, they smuggle communications written on cigarette paper in and out of the jail, they speak the Irish language, all at great risk to themselves. The amount of physical pain they are willing to endure in their struggle is incredible. The British administration and the screws cannot stop them. This is the crux of it — the British prison system cannot control the POWs’ minds, so they attempt to control their bodies. In the H-Blocks, the body itself becomes the site of the struggle. Ultimately, with no further recourse, this situation will lead to the hunger strike.
But it doesn’t happen right away. An earlier but key moment of the film to my mind occurs when a prison guard, in head-to-toe protective suit and mask, enters a vacant cell to water-blast the shit off the walls. A circular design swirled in shit catches his eye, and he pauses to look at it. It seems to resemble something like a cave painting. The man even takes off his mask for a second to get a better look. Where he initially appears robotic, outfitted as he is, we suddenly get a glimpse of his common humanity. But then he pulls the mask back down and begins the cleaning. The circle design slowly disappears. It is an amazing scene, and one that is resonant with meaning. At the most basic level, McQueen seems to be saying, this is a conflict of the artist versus the machine. The prisoners, even in the most dire of circumstances, are still in their essences artists. Bobby Sands himself was a poet and writer, who smuggled his work out bit by bit on tiny pieces of paper. One of the books he wrote in prison, One Day in My Life, is in part the basis for this film. One thinks of other Irish republican leaders in this context. Pádraig Pearse and Thomas McDonagh, for example, leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, were also poets. Here the artistic urge is expressed in a form of painting, a primal design that alludes to our earliest ancestors. The prison worker seems to puzzle over it for a second, as if asking himself, “Me too?” But he chooses to suppress those feelings, puts the mask back down over his face, and starts spraying the water jets. The round swirl slowly fades as the emerging white wall blanks everything out. It is a destructive impulse, as opposed to the prisoners’ creative impulse.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating the point. For one, this scene forms the design of the movie poster and the DVD cover. The actual disc features the shit circle too, in full brown, as opposed to the poster/cover which shows it in the process of disappearing. A number of earlier reviews of the film criticized McQueen for supposedly aestheticizing the struggle. Similar accusations were made against Francis Ford Coppola when he released Apocalypse Now, that he was aestheticizing the Vietnam War. But I think Coppola’s response also applies here. Coppola noted that Vietnam was a television war, that it existed for many people as television images from the start. McQueen mentions in an interview included in the DVD’s special features that he remembers as a child seeing images of the hunger strikers and of Sands on television, and that this stuck with him (he also mentions that he innately sympathized with the hunger strikers). The hunger strikers knew full well the propaganda value of their almost Christ-like images. Not in any cynical way; they were people who were involved in a political struggle, who were doing everything they could to gain public support not only for the immediate cause of the prisoners, but for the aims of the republican movement on the wider scale (those aims being the defeat of the British government and unity of Ireland). They were conscious of aesthetics, partly for political reasons, but partly also because some were artists too. McQueen is not therefore “aestheticizing” the struggle in Hunger. He is saying that the struggle itself is aesthetic, that in some way it actually is a form of art (Kafka’s story “A Hunger Artist” comes to mind here). As awful and bleak and brutal as it often was (the initial prison guard character gets assassinated in front of his mother in a nursing home), the impulse to smear a spiral of shit on the wall represents something essential in all human beings. And the impulse to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of others, through the deliberate wasting away of one’s own body, as emblemized by Sands, is a tenderness beyond comprehension to most, including me.
The film’s pivotal scene is the no-cut 22-minute back-lit shot of a conversation between Sands and a priest named Fr. Moran (played by Liam Cunningham). A number of things stick in my mind about this scene. One of course is the length: 22 minutes (I’ve also read 17 minutes), with no cuts, of intense, incisive dialogue. This is when Sands announces his intention, and the intention of other prisoners, to go on hunger strike. Moran tries to argue him out of it on moral grounds, and a sort of battle of the wills ensues. The other aspects that resonate for me are what clinch the argument for Sands: How do we know Sands has the strength of will to carry this out? After all, other republican prisoners had recently attempted the same thing, and it ended in failure and disarray. Sands conveys his resolve to Moran through a parabolic story from his childhood, a story redolent of poetry. Bobby and some other Belfast lads go to Gaoth Dobhair, Co. Donegal, on a school trip. Off in the woods, they find a fawn stranded in a stream, near death, but still alive. They debate about what to do with it — put it out of its misery, attempt to rescue it? Bobby and the others go into the water. Just then, the priest arrives, orders them all back, and the boys are in trouble. Bobby, however, strangles the fawn to death before the priest’s very eyes and takes responsibility for the whole thing. He gets the priest’s wrath, but he is satisfied that he’s done right by the fawn. He has taken action. The story is conveyed solely through dialogue, yet the viewer feels as if he is watching it unfold. As the conversation comes to a climax, Sands makes himself unambiguously clear — the time now has also come for action, a purity of political action. There can be no more fence-sitting. The hunger strike is going to happen, and you are either with us or against us. In defeat, Moran lets it be known that he and Sands will not meet again, and that is that.
The rest of the film is an awe-inspiring display of both McQueen’s feel for poetic imagery and Fassbender’s intense act of body-modification (which I would venture to suggest surpasses even that of Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull — De Niro only had to put pounds on; Fassender loses them to the peril of his own health — and this further serves to raise the thought: what of the real Bobby Sands, and the physical torments he went through? — and Margaret Thatcher scoffed!).
Despite McQueen’s protestations (no doubt necessary in public interviews) that he explores the trauma endured on all sides of the conflict in the North of Ireland (and in fact he well depicts this in practice; we all know that the oppressor is affected in untold ways by his inflicting of oppression), this is not a film that anyone can be neutral about. As Sands himself says here in no uncertain terms, you cannot remain on the fence about this. You either support Sands and his fellow hunger strikers, or you support British occupation and oppression of Ireland. You either support Sands, or you support anal rape, beatings of prisoners, forced baths and haircuts, concentration camp conditions. You either support Sands, or you support the negation of art and poetry, the negation of humanity. You either see the greatness of this film, or you do not know film.