Dir: Steve McQueen
Released in 2008 to near universal acclaim, Steve McQueen’s feature debut (no, not that Steve McQueen, the other one, the British artist who has probably spent many a morning cursing his parents for giving a moniker associated with the star of Bullitt) has recently arrived on Criterion DVD. Capturing the paradoxical isolation and panoptic loss of privacy of prison life, Hunger rejuvenates the historical biopic.
Even though it’s the story of the 1981 politically motivated self-starvation of Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands, the film provides scant background of Sands’ life. He has parents, and a son, and as a child, was a cross-country runner. He’s like everybody else, but a little individual too. That’s all we need to know. In fact, he’s so much like everyone else, he doesn’t appear at all until the second third of the film. Hunger is developed in an exacting triptych formula, with two near silent acts bookending a 22 minute, esoteric, and wordy debate between Sands and a visiting priest (written loftily by Irish playwright Enda Walsh) on the merits of acting out politics on the body. Both Sands and Father Moran are Republicans, who oppose the control of northern Ireland by the English, the treatment of the Catholics of Belfast as second-class citizens, and the refusal by Margaret Thatcher to grant political status to IRA partisans. But the priest can, for all the obvious reasons, not sanction or condone Sands’s choice to starve himself to death. The scene is an allegory, with Sands and the priest standing in for the two schools of thought on the hunger strike itself. It’s also a most remarkably effective summation of where the Troubles stood in 1981.
I have known about Bobby Sands since I was a teenager, though I was raised a secular Jew in New York, and could understand little of the millennia of trouble that has plagued the English/Irish relationship. For a young radical in the 1990s Ten Men Dead (the book on which the film is most closely referenced) was required reading. I learned to protest in a media landscape closed to dissent, and after years standing on a chilly street screaming but going unheard, there was something alluring in the imagery of the IRA’s ethereal martyrs, and the national attention they garnered. The IRA lost much of its shine as I learned more about the tremendous suffering endured by non-partisans during their tenure, parallel the close connections between the IRA and the PLO, and became more familiar with what it actually meant to live in fear of explosions and death interrupting my day. Still, the prison writings of Bobby Sands touch me, and the story of the slow suicide of the hunger strikers illuminates powerlessness deeply.
Hunger depicts Sands’ decline in painterly, religious sweeps, ending in a mimicry of the Shroud of Turin. While initially seeming to lionize Sands, the imagery reveals more nuance. Sands’ is not a Christ-like figure in his actions, but he is shown to be as central to Catholic culture in Northern Ireland in 1981, as the bible itself. But this epic representation is contrasted with the claustrophobic atmosphere of the prison—at turns a prisoner struggles to find a quiet moment to masturbate, contraband goes in and out of orifices, guards cry uncontrollably as beatings are administered.
These images haunt more than the wasting body Sands, though Michael Fassbender showed himself to be a dedicated hunger artist in the role. I cannot aesthetically judge the sight of an actor starving, but I can laud McQueen for his historian’s eye. The most intriguing aspect of the commentary tracks by McQueen and Fassbender are their reflections of how searing the images of Sands were to them in the 1980s, and yet how apolitical a figure he is today. There is even continued talk of turning the Maze prison where the hunger strikes occurred into a museum, and IRA tourism is a booming business in Belfast. Yet Hunger is viscerally contemporary. Upon its release, many analogies were made to Abu Ghraib. Today, however, it evokes to the Communication Management Units (CMUs) that have popped up at Federally run prisons in Illinois and Indiana. Housing primarily Muslim men who have been charged or convicted of “second tier terrorist activities,” these units (America’s Little Gitmos) have also been home to at least two prisoners convicted of non-violent animal rights and environmental activism “crimes”. The CMUs cut off virtually all contact between inmates and the outside world—no media interviews have been granted to prisoners within them since they opened in 2006 and inmates are given one phone call a week rather than the average 300 minutes a month prisoners are offered. The clear purpose of the units is to cut those with unpopular ideas off from the media and the outside world, but the prison boards deny the political nature of the CMUs. The ACLU has sued to shut them down.
Few inmates have been released from the CMUs and little information is available on them. But they have taken the lessons of earlier prison struggles well. Their sheer invisibility is testament to the effects that efforts like the hunger strikes had to turn public sympathy towards individuals previously branded terrorists, without sugarcoating or overstating their actions. In Hunger the disembodied voice of Margaret Thatcher—the only villain in the film—comes in cruelly dismissive: “They seek to work on the most basic of human emotions—pity—as a means of stoking the fires of bitterness and hatred.” She derides compassion with palpable venom. And since the cessation of the hungers strikes (which ended with the IRA prisoners being given the considerations of political prisoners for which they asked in all but name), governments have redoubled their efforts to keep the public from feeling compassion, or pity, for prisoners.
McQueen modeled his set closely after the floor plan of the Maze, and based his recreation of the prison on the meager 90 seconds of television footage he could find from the H-Block. The footage is featured in the 1981 documentary on the hunger strike included on the DVD, which is notable in its contrast to the whitewashed presentations of “Life Inside Prison” features Dateline seems to be continually running. The extras on the DVD are all equally well-considered and though I generally can’t bear to listen to artists talk about their art, McQueen and Fassbender act as great stand ins for the Irish people reflecting on the IRA in popular culture. In the film, too, McQueen conjures the Irish reaction to Sands while maintaining a circumscribed narrative focus on the Maze. Though there are moments which are strategically “artsy,” such as a cutaway to a spiral of human excreta carefully painted onto the wall of a cell in the manner of a zen sand garden, slowly being hosed away, Hunger renders the suffering in the H-Block anything but impermanent or abstract.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.