Hunger: On the Threshold

On Film / Essays — Feb 17, 2010

The feature film debut of British artist Steve McQueen, Hunger dramatizes the final weeks in the life of Irish Republican Army commander Bobby Sands and his death by hunger strike, aged twenty-seven, in 1981. Combining intense formal control and extreme brutality, the film uncompromisingly pitches the viewer into the corridors and cells of Northern Ireland’s notorious Maze prison (also known as the H-Blocks), which hunger strikes made the focus of the British government’s war with the IRA. McQueen has spoken of how media images of Sands and his fellow prisoners burned themselves into his memory when he first saw them as an eleven-year-old in London. Being only a few years older than McQueen (who was born in 1968), I can confirm that he was not alone in being marked by images of these men: wrapped in blankets, their piercing eyes sunk in gaunt faces framed by matted hair, they had an ascetic otherness that was inescapably Christlike and unforgettable for a child of the time. We were told that these were “terrorists” and “criminals,” and the issue of political identity is at the heart of the events that Hunger so viscerally re-creates.

Britain’s colonial war in Ireland has received numerous cinematic treatments, ranging from epic biopics like Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996) to films about specific events, such as Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday (2002). Ken Loach has made three films on the subject, two on its early twentieth-century origins, Days of Hope (1975) and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), and one addressing the decisive 1980s period, Hidden Agenda (1990). At least two other films have dealt with the hunger strikes—Terry George’s Some Mother’s Son (1996) and Les Blair’s H3 (2001)—but Hunger aims beyond the more conventional historical approaches of all of these. McQueen’s aesthetic is at once abstract and highly concentrated, creating an art movie with a flame of political fury at its heart. In its formal rigor, Alan Clarke’s made-for-TV Elephant (1989), a mute, brutal catalog of paramilitary killings, is perhaps the only comparable work (it also inspired Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film of the same name).

Hunger’s script, by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, only suggests the wider political context, so some background information is useful. The hunger strikes were an escalation of protests that had begun in 1976 in response to the rescindment of the Special Category Status of Republican inmates, meaning that they were no longer recognized as political prisoners but as regular criminals. Before Sands (Michael Fassbender) appears in the film, the actions that led to the hunger strikes are hinted at through other prisoners. A new inmate, Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), is ordered by guards to strip naked, given a blanket, and incarcerated in a cell that the other occupant has smeared with feces—the film thereby swiftly establishing the “blanket” protest (Republican prisoners demanded the right not to wear prison clothing) and the “no wash” protest, in which, in response to attacks on inmates during “slopping out” (getting rid of their waste in the morning), prisoners refused to bathe and daubed their cells with excrement.

Given so little exposition, the viewer is thus thrown headlong into the harshness of the H-Blocks, where beatings and torture are routine. With the exceptions of a prologue in which a prison guard, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), prepares to leave home for work—bathing his bruised knuckles and checking his car for explosives—and a later scene in which an IRA man executes him, the outside world barely intrudes upon the penal one that is the work’s focus. And despite the film’s clear politics, that opening sequence is a sympathetic look at “the other side” that declares a certain evenhandedness, expressing the film’s intention to neither heroize nor demonize, as are later shots of a tearful young policeman traumatized by the brutal beatings he and his fellow cops mete out to naked prisoners. But the prologue can also be read for its spatial conception: the outside world seen as a carceral antechamber, with imprisonment as a metaphor for occupation. During the first third of the film, McQueen details the squalid conditions and the inmates’ painstaking efforts to outwit their captors: for example, turning leftover food into strips of moldable mush, which they use to channel urine into the prison corridors. Prisoners and their loved ones alike employ any bodily orifice to secrete messages and communication devices, turning the intimacy of visiting time into an orgy of surreptitious exchanges. One image in particular stands out. A prison guard wearing protective clothing enters a cell to spray it clean and is confronted by an extraordinary sight: a spiral smeared in shit covers the entire wall. McQueen frames this cloacal vortex like an abject work of art, and as much as it expresses the prisoners’ defiance, it also asserts the filmmaker’s own background.

A standout of the so-called YBA, or Young British Artists, generation, which came to prominence in the 1990s (and whose knowing fusion of conceptualism and self-promotion succeeded overall in producing more column inches than notable artworks), McQueen has been honored with the prestigious Turner Prize, in 1999, and with representing Britain at the Venice Biennale, in 2009. His interest in cinema was apparent in the minimalist moving-image pieces for which he became known, such as the silent, black-and-white Deadpan (1997), a restaging of a Buster Keaton stunt in which a house collapses around the impassive artist. In this and other experimental works, such as Bear (1993) and Drumroll (1998), McQueen studiously avoided dealing with narrative, producing films intended for the self-referential context of the contemporary art gallery. While many of his better-known peers, such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Sam Taylor-Wood, have also made forays into film and video, McQueen is the first to break through to big-screen narrative cinema, and he’s done it with shocking confidence in Hunger. Also, in broaching the politically charged subject matter of the Irish hunger strikes, McQueen has further distinguished himself from his British art-world contemporaries, whose work has generally lacked sociopolitical urgency.

The film’s most intensely political moment is also its centerpiece: an exchange between Sands and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham). Twenty-three minutes long, much of it shot in a single take, this riveting scene shows the two men sizing each other up over shared cigarettes, engaging in cut-and-thrust banter, and debating the morality of the suicidal course Sands is about to embark on. As if in homage to similar scenes in Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley and his Spanish Civil War film, Land and Freedom (1995), this meaty session of dialectics shifts Hunger’s focus from its hitherto fragmentary depiction of detail to the establishment of Sands as the central figure of the film and the Republican struggle alike.

The priest berates Sands by charging “You’re writing your name large for the history books,” urging negotiation with the authorities and accusing him of no longer knowing the value of a human life. Sands responds obliquely, relating his sense of leadership through an anecdote about his boyhood, when, as a cross-country runner, he and some other boys came upon an injured foal, and he was the only one capable of putting the creature out of its misery. While in prison, Sands wrote poetry and journalism, and here we are given a picture of him as an intelligent, utterly committed individual, a self-described “political theorist” who regards himself as a soldier above all. This anecdote returns as a flashback in the final third of the film, when Sands is shown wasting away. This section is a grueling depiction of the terminal course of action that claimed the lives of Sands and nine other hunger strikers. Fassbender lost a great deal of weight to authentically convey the last stages of Sands’s life, and his emaciation adds to the bleak, hushed atmosphere as his boyhood memories of the countryside surge forth in images of birds wheeling and scattering in the sky, foreshadowing his soul’s departure. These visuals are poetic and transcendent, no doubt, but they also represent the most definitive kind of “jailbreak” imaginable in what is, after all, a prison movie.

In the secret diary he kept for the first seventeen days of his sixty-six-day hunger strike, Sands wrote, “I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world.” Hunger takes us to that threshold and looks on with awed horror as Sands crosses over. But he and his comrades also contributed to the creation of a new political reality. During his strike, Sands was elected to the British parliament, and although Margaret Thatcher’s government refused throughout to meet the prisoners’ demands (provoking international outrage), the hunger strikes radicalized nationalist politics and enabled Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing, to become a mainstream party, demonstrating that the Republicans indeed possessed a popular mandate, and preparing the way for the peace process that culminated in the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

Hunger was received with great critical enthusiasm, winning several major prizes, including the prestigious Caméra d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Its reception in the British press was almost unanimously approving, which was somewhat surprising given that the film leaves little doubt about where McQueen’s sympathies lie, despite his avoidance of idolizing his protagonist. The director was also careful to stress in interviews that he did not see the film as “political” (which, of course, it is) but as having to do with the pressures forced on individuals by the political situations that governments create. Through a combination of visceral power and formal conviction, the film achieves its aim of putting the viewer in the cells alongside the inmates. And while Hunger deals with a specific moment in Anglo-Irish history, its images of incarceration and torture cannot help but recall the more contemporary examples of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay—a wider resonance served by the film’s slight contextualization of the events it depicts. In its fury at torture and political imprisonment, Hunger is both a historical film and one very much of its time.