(31/10/08) – Hunger is partially based on real events, most obviously the hunger strike led by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) of IRA prisoners in 1981 to achieve political prisoner status within the British prison system. What the hunger-striking prisoners wanted were the rights to wear their own clothes, not do prison work – but above all, not to be classed as criminals, but instead political prisoners. It’s a pretty heavy topic for a movie, and director Steve McQueen has chosen to tell his story using a mix of fact and fiction. This uneasy combination makes Hunger very hard to swallow.
Sands is not even introduced until about halfway through the film. The opening third is loosely structured around a prison guard (Stuart Graham), understood automatically by British and Irish audiences as a Protestant. His morning routine and life within the prison contrasts with the entry into the prison of a young IRA man, Davey (Brian Milligan), who immediately demands political status and therefore goes immediately onto the ‘blanket protest’. That was refusing to wear prison clothes and so going naked, except for a prison-issue blanket. He is sent to share the cell of another prisoner on the blanket, Gerry (Liam McMahon) who is also on the ‘dirty protest’ – that is, to protest the conditions in which he was being kept, and also to disturb and upset the guards, by smearing every available surface in the cell with his shit.
Director McQueen (a celebrated YBA – or Young British Artist – here making his first feature film) has received high praise elsewhere for Hunger. Former IRA men have gone on record to say that he captured the atmosphere of the times accurately – the smell, the tension, the violence, the attempts at camaraderie, and the filth. This is not a film to have seen if you’ve recently eaten, or have a delicate stomach. And McQueen knows how to frame and stage a simple sequence so that it is fraught with nerves, based on little more than careful framing of a shot, clever camera placement and the judicious use of sound. Long stretches of the film take place in silence, with the only sounds everyday noises such as the splashing of water in a bathtub, a broom’s bristles against a concrete floor, or the crunching of footsteps in snow.
But what McQueen does not do is tell any of the overlapping stories in this film fairly. After we spend the first half of the film with Davey, Gerry and the prison guard, we are taken into the prison visiting room, late at night, where Sands has summoned a priest (Liam Cunningham) to announce that he is starting rolling hunger strikes in protest at their lack of political prisoner status.
This conversation lasts about half an hour, plays out in real time, and centres on a 22-minute take that is also receiving high praise elsewhere. I don’t understand why. Is the lack of editing within this scene meant to display objectivity? But since we learn Sands’ mind is already made up, what is the point of the conversation? The priest’s weak questioning and a laughable childhood metaphor don’t truly demonstrate to us what led Sands to this decision. What power did he have that enabled him to lead so many other men after him? McQueen and his writer Enda Walsh, who is from Cork, do not show us anything about Sands before his hunger strike, therefore this film paints only half a portrait.
McQueen’s artistic background comes across in almost every shot, as he is able to find the poetry in even the most bloody or disturbing of images, but the lack of context in this film is dangerously inappropriate. The history is incredibly well-known to everyone in Northern Ireland, indeed probably to everyone in both the UK and Ireland. But who in these countries needs to see this film? So how is Hunger meant to be appreciated in the wider world – with the exception of two short statements by Margaret Thatcher, and brief subtitles before and after the film – when there is no wider context? Just for starters, what was life like for the people who chose to identify as political terrorists and commit acts that got them interned? Why would someone choose to work as a prison guard in the shown conditions? We aren’t told.
Davey and Gerry are composites of actual prisoners and not real people, unlike Sands, of course. But at least they have names. None of the Protestant characters are named onscreen, which is a clear statement of bias. And this type of bias is an extremely dangerous thing to have in work about Northern Ireland. Does the film wish to imply that Protestants in Northern Ireland are indistinguishably violent bigots? Is McQueen saying that IRA violence was understandable, or justified? The Troubles are over, but they have not really ended. For example, the Northern Ireland Assembly has to shut itself down periodically due to the political parties’ inability to work together. People have been disappeared by the paramilitaries as recently as 2005, and the murderers responsible for blowing up Omagh in 1998 remain free from justice. 3,500 people were murdered in this political violence, in a region of approximately 1.5 million people. That’s two out of every thousand people, murdered.
You have a thousand people in your wider circle. Imagine two of them (for example, the dad of a friend of your nieces, or the wife of a colleague of your brother’s), murdered. So with 3,500 dead, how many other people are injured, traumatised, beaten, grieving?
Knowing this, how is it possible for McQueen to state in his press notes "…it was essential that we filmed in Northern Ireland, using Northern Irish crew and cast. What became apparent was how so many people had been touched by this story and it was quite remarkable how everyone knew where they were when Bobby Sands died and during the hunger strike, everyone had some kind of relationship to the events of that time," unless he is hopelessly naive about or shaming-ly indifferent to the suffering Northern Ireland has endured?
I’ve walked out of films, I’ve sworn at the screen, I’ve written angry letters to writers, I’ve punched the seat backs in front of me. I can appreciate that any film which causes a visceral reaction must have some power. I knew I was going to find Hunger hard going. I’ve lived in Northern Ireland and have family there; my wider circle and therefore my life has been touched directly by the Troubles. However it has been affected by other terrorist acts as well, and I don’t just mean by being an American who was alive on September 11, 2001. What I have understood since childhood based on these experiences is that one terrorist act is not the same as another. But this should be obvious – not all crimes are the same.
The main problem that I have with Hunger is that it is being deliberately used by the director and producers as a metaphor for other, more recent acts of terrorism. This is unjustifiable. The battle that IRA prisoners fought inside their prisons for treatment that lived up to their standards was their fight alone. Fassbender makes an obvious Oscar grab with his willingness to starve himself for the role, but he only embodies the physicality of Sands’ struggle. There’s no psychology to his performance at all, no sense. One man wastes away and dies, and we are supposed to understand what this sacrifice means without knowing the rest of the story. In this telling, there’s no point to it. It is unfathomable to me that McQueen has gone on record, again from his press notes, saying "When [the executive producer] approached me at the beginning of 2003 there was no Iraq War, no Guantanamo Bay, no Abu Griab [sic] prison but as time’s gone by the parallels have become apparent. History repeats itself, lots of people have short memories, and we need to remember that these kinds of things have happened in Britain."
In this quote, McQueen is comparing the treatment of the IRA prisoners in the late 70s and early 80s to the treatment of those men in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. I have seen a few other reviews of Hunger that have made similar comparisons. The hubris of this lazy and insulting comparison is shocking. The hunger strikers and the prisoners on the blanket were not fighting the same war as the men in Iraq. Indeed, most of the men in both Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib were either arrested by mistake, or have yet to be convicted of any crime ï¿½" ie, innocent. The same could not have been said of Bobby Sands.
And that is why I am so angry about Hunger. It wants to provoke political debate without providing a context for the political situation it depicts. It pretends to have an objective point of view, but only grants one group of characters the dignity of individuality. By fracturing the film’s narrative so not one character can be seen clearly, it covers its whole objective with shit. Worst of all, based on the director’s own statements and the treatment of the character of the prison guard, this film wishes to equate the violence caused by the IRA to the violence endured by the innocent prisoners in Abu Ghraib.
Sands chose his death because he knew it would cause enough violence to embarrass the British government into ceding to his demands. As a terrorist, locked in a prison, the final act of terror he was able to commit was against himself. Hunger could have been an examination of this mindset with Sands’ clear realisation of the options before him – renunciation of violence, or through violence itself. And as a prisoner, the only possible victim for his violence was his own body. Hunger could have explored how violence damages the soul, both of those who cause it, and of those affected by it. Instead it buys into the belief that terror is an acceptable way to get what you want; that murder is acceptable, if you have a political excuse for doing it. Seeing Hunger will make you feel dirty. Indulge if you must, but you’ve been warned – it will leave a foul taste in your mouth.
Hunger opens in the UK today.