Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)
I picked out this film to watch because I thought that it would probably set me a challenge. It’s been lavished with praise for its artistry, but I strongly suspected it would be a hagiography of someone who disgusts me. If you’re an Irish American, thousands of miles away, I’m sure it’s natural to think of the IRA as romantic outlaw heroes; but as a Belfast Protestant I can’t really see them as anything other than the people who blew my neighbourhood up, who tried to kill us and who on hundreds of occasions succeeded.
Happily, although it wasn’t a completely objective rendering, it was cool, distanced and stylised enough to keep me watching, interested and even impressed at times. The particular conflict at stake in the film is whether the IRA should be recognised as political prisoners or mere criminals, but the director is more interested in the individual than the politics or the background. What was it like for these people, what is it like to spend all day shut up in a prison? How do they cope, what makes them tick? The wardens are not faceless operatives of the state, they are humanised and given as much attention as the prisoners.
The style is slow and very minimal, the focus on the minute details; a prisoner at his window bars, trying to coax a fly onto his finger. As an officer eats toast for breakfast, the camera sits under the table to give a close-up of the crumbs bouncing onto his napkin. The prisoners frequently flood the corridors with urine, a stream flowing from under each cell door. Several minutes are dedicated to the warden cleaning the mess up with a mop and a bucket of disinfectant. He slowly, thoroughly works his way down the corridor and after a while it’s hypnotic to watch. The white striplights are reflcted in the puddles of piss and it even resembles an MTV video. Such scenes give a sense of time passing terribly slowly.
The film is airless, claustrophobic and deprived of natural light. We are spared none of the filth of a dirty protest. The prisoners confront us with the filth that we, civilised animals, like to convey out of sight with toilets, pipes and sewers, but that is nevertheless produced by our own bodies. On the walls, the prisoners use their shit to paint spirals that look like possible Turner Prize winners. The unhappiest we ever see them is when they are moved into nicer cells with clean clothes and proper beds. They howl with rage and immediately set about smashing their cells up.
The depiction of Bobby Sands’ death through hunger strike leads the film into morally dubious terrain. Death through voluntary starvation: being an extreme that none of us will ever experience, the phenomenon is clearly a compelling subject for drama (Kafka’s Hunger Artist springs to mind) especially in this age of consumerism, fast-food and obesity. But McQueen so clearly gets off on the squalor and the emaciated bodies that I felt he got drawn in to admiring the prisoners. Bobby Sands was a terrorist, who martyred himself in an attempt to confer legitimacy upon the murders of civilians. By giving him all this attention, isn’t the film colluding in that?
Thatcher merely pointed out that these men had chosen to die, a choice which their organisation did not extend to their many victims. In Hunger the Iron Lady is set up as a straw man. During interludes we’ll hear voiceovers of her condescending, Victorian Governess’ voice from Commons speeches. We are to infer that the powers that be are light years away from all of this, understand nothing, &c. Yet she was voicing the feelings of a significant majority of Northern Ireland. Murder is a crime. I don’t see that as unfair comment.
The treatment of the wardens is more interesting. I came away from the film with the sense that the prison officers were the real prisoners, having to face all the horrible stuff that the IRA’s methods of resistance threw at them, and unable to switch off at the end of their working day. Like Rorscach tells the prison toughs in Watchmen, “I’m not locked in here with you, you’re locked in here with me”.
The first character we meet and follow is a warden; a gaunt and miserable chap looking into the mirror. He dresses and eats breakfast in silence, and I thought of those late-period Bill Murray films like Broken Flowers. He’s isolated from his fellow man; as the other officers chat and joke, he sits on his own in the changing room and is left to play with a piece of tinfoil when he goes to the staff room. He stands over a sink, breathing heavily, with bloodied knuckles and a pair of scissors at his side. Then he smokes in the snow- looking like an Anton Corbijn/Ian Curtis photo session.
It isn’t until later that we see the provenance of his injury or his scissors. The prisoners who refuse to wash as part of the dirty process are dragged from their cells. One spits on our warden, then ducks his punch- the knuckles go straight into the wall. The prisoner snarls and fights like an animal as two other men hold him down that they might cut off his straggling beard and hair. He is forced into a bath and again held down as our man tries to scrub him with a sponge on a broom handle. What a job these guys have.
The warden is abruptly killed off as he visits his mother at an old folks’ home. Again, the sense of his isolation- all around him are octogenarians eagerly chatting to their children, but his mother sits rigid in a catatonic trance. A gunman swaggers in and shoots the warden in the back of the head. His mother is still immobile, neither seeing nor comprehending; blood across her face and her son’s body sprawled across her lap. Just as well.
The IRA men, on the other hand, are forcing this confrontation & conflict, making it as hard as they can for the wardens. You rather feel that they are eager to be brutalised in new and ever more horrific ways, because it will confirm that the authorities are the bad guys and they are righteous. After the destruction of the cosy cells, a squad of riot police are sent in to beat the prisoners with batons. As they file through and line up, the camera focuses one apprehensive-looking youngster. Whilst the prisoners are beaten, this man is disclosed hiding on the other side of the wall and crying. Contrast this to the expression of a man tossed into his cell after his beating; with blood pouring from his nose and mouth, he has a proud glimmer of ecstasy in his eyes.
The film is very short on dialogue, save for it’s centrepiece; when Bobby Sands informs a priest of his intentions to begin a hunger strike. Fassbender plays him brooding and charismatic but it is to the film’s credit that it pits a voice of equal articulacy and intelligence against Sands; one also from the Republican community, that accuses him of choosing to play James Dean in a fit in nihilism when he could have done something constructive.
The scene takes up some 20 minutes; the camera is static, facing their table side on. Sands leans forward, the priest leans back. Their conversation takes a lesiurely route before getting to the bones of the subject, initially discussing priestly business at length. From the outset it’s on-your-toes, slightly adversarial stuff, Sands teasing the priest about his “Ballygobackwards” origins.
When they get down to business the priest tries, and fails, to reason with Sands; the argument is gripping. Sands has 75 volunteers for the strike. He sees negotiation as a sideshow and will settle for nothing other than total surrender from Thatcher. The real freedom fighters, says the priest, are the ones doing work in the community. That’s where we need you most. He calls the strike suicide, Sands calls it murder. Sands goes on to liken himself to Christ. We don’t see the priest face-on until the very end, when they have run out of words.
After this confrontation, the film ebbs away rather. There is no dramatic orchestral score, no high-tempo voiceovers by newsreaders or indignant politicians, no table-thumbing arguments about the rights and wrongs, not even any struggles to get baby food down a funnel. We instead see the hunger strike through Sands’ eyes in a sequence of spaced-out, slightly blurred scenes.
To start with a doctor gives a voiceover telling us the effects of starvation on the body; weakened bones and heart, wasting muscles, internal ulcers. Then it’s all wordless vignettes; a skeletal man falling in the bath, a visitor whose lips move but to whom we are deaf, a nurse applying cream onto open, weeping sores. A succession of meals are put down at the bedside, and then taken away.
Viewed purely as a piece of cinema Hunger is stylish, artsy and thought-provoking; visually very strong and, for its subject matter, oddly hermetic. It walks a tightrope as it tries to stay ambivalent about a group of men by whom it is fascinated, and however much that tightrope wobbles I don’t think they ever fell into pure propaganda.