Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2009) – Hunger is an arty film about hunger strikers in a prison in Northern Ireland. I know what you’re thinking… why would I want to see this? Well, I’ll tell you. First, it’s gorgeous to look at; the compositions are incredibly precise and beautiful. Second, it’s a true story that is underrepresented in American and international press, and it approaches the very difficult question of terrorism as a means of political action from a refreshingly humanistic point-of-view. Third, you’ve got to see the dedicated and unnerving performance by Michael Fassbender, who, after Inglourious Basterds and Fish Tank, is fast making his name as one of the most gifted and versatile actors of his generation.
For those who don’t know, director Steve McQueen is a British artist who many years ago made the switch from still to motion photography. (No relation to the deceased American actor.) His films in the past were projected in art galleries, and thus were avant-garde, and explored the implications of what happens when a camera is running in a specific place and time. In other words, McQueen is far more interested in what happens visually within the frame and how we respond to that as viewers than he is in other aspects of filmic storytelling (such as setting up character or plot expectations through dialogue).
Thus, the opening 30 minutes or so of Hunger, his first narrative feature, has very little dialogue. (For that matter, the final 30 minutes of the film are virtually silent as well.) Save for one title card at the beginning and a couple well-placed bits of archival radio-news clips, very little energy is expended giving us context for the story we are about to see. We are soon thrust into the hellish reality of being locked up in a dark prison cell. These prisoners were hated more than any other by the British, and their treatment was consequently horrific. When we meet them, the prisoners are protesting their lack of “status” – that is, they consider themselves political prisoners, not criminals, as the British government classifies them. Having status as political prisoners would allow them to wear clothes of their choosing, and other perks that McQueen chooses not to focus on. Instead, he focuses on the creativity of their protests: pouring buckets of their saved urine into the hall all at the same time, smearing walls with their feces, refusing to wear the prison clothing. They methodically coordinate with their loved ones on the outside to smuggle in things like small radios and to pass notes to and from IRA leadership. To put an end to the protests and smuggling operations, the guards organize ritual beatings, roughly inspect their anuses and mouths, and brutally force-bathe them.
It is in these circumstances that we are introduced to Bobby Sands. Despite his horrible treatment, he remains unafraid and unbowed. With chilling calm he tells his parents not to worry about him, even though he has large ugly bruises on his face. He is the leader of the organized protests, and it is as a result of his decisions that much of the brutality occurred to begin with. The question of “who-did-what-to-whom-first?” belongs to a partisan way of thinking that McQueen is trying hard to avoid, (which is why he focuses so much on the visceral). Nevertheless, as if to prove his humanistic impulse, McQueen shows us that he has sympathy for the guards who have to do the brutalizing as part of their day jobs. Thus, one high-level guard must check under his car for bombs every morning before heading to work. Another deals with the terrifying reality of the ritual beatings by crying alone in the corner. At no point are they really safe from being targeted by the IRA. There are no easy heroes or villains here, except maybe Margaret Thatcher, who is painted as a political opportunist with little need for the complexities of reality, and is dehumanized by being depicted only through highly mediated, sound-only, clips of public broadcasts.
The centerpiece of the film, and nearly the only with actual dialogue, is a sit-down between Bobby and a priest with whom he has an established relationship, though probably only after he got to prison. As if McQueen didn’t want to get in the way of the dialogue, most of it is comprised of a single wide take, nearly 20 minutes long, where their figures are silhouetted so that we can’t really see their faces. Only at the very end of the scene does he finally cut to close-up, which is also thrilling because of how long he kept us in suspense. Rarely does a scene with that much dialogue keep us from seeing the characters’ faces, and to be finally rewarded is thrilling. The conversation begins with some surprisingly candid small talk about Father Dominic’s jealousy of his younger brother, designed to convince Bobby that “Dom” is as real as your everyday Irishman. Bobby tells Dom about his intentions to go on a hunger strike, and the two go back and forth with a power struggle of words. Dom says, “When you’re answer is to kill everything, you’ve blinded yourself. And you’re scared to stop it!” In close-up, Bobby recounts a story of his youth, when he was out playing with his friends and they came upon a mortally wounded foal. What he learned about himself from that experience crystallizes his characters point of view perfectly, and he wins the war of words decisively.
Hopefully McQueen in the future finds a way to more synergistically combine his admirable visual sense with the dialogic needs of narrative filmmaking. If I had any complaint about Hunger, it is that the central scene is so compelling, well-written and well-performed, that I would like to see McQueen tackle stories with more talk, and not be so frightened that the dialogue and visuals would step over each other. Sound and Vision can constructively interfere as well as destructively interfere. Like a sculpture artist or photographer, McQueen has made a picture that in a sense is a visual study of a male body decaying. He really flexes his visual muscles during the final third of the picture, often taking us into Bobby’s point-of-view with great imagination and execution (if you can stand to watch the body’s deterioration). While Fassbender is never less than compelling in the painful starvation scenes, he really shines in the scene in which he gets to bite into some really great dialogue. I feel McQueen could find ways to introduce more narrative propulsion without so dramatically divorcing it from the visually-intoxicating rest of the film. In other words, this isn’t an “either/or” choice, as McQueen seems to treat it.
This is a film that winds up generating a good deal of sympathy, even unusual admiration, for Bobby, who was in historical fact a member of a terrorist organization in the IRA. This is nothing if not an extremely complicated position for the film to take, especially because it asks a lot of us viewers who might not be so inclined toward sympathy. But by toning down the rhetoric and focusing on the physical reality of self-imposed starvation, McQueen allows us to admire the courage and forthrightness of the man Bobby Sands, rather than the politics. The politics of the story are elucidated entirely in the central scene between Bobby and the priest, and what we take away from that is Bobby is certainly not insane. McQueen has forced us, as Bobby forced the British in 1981, to take another serious look at the IRA and the root of political violence. While in many ways the British can justify their treatment of IRA prisoners on paper, the fact that a sane man would do this to himself, 9 others with him, and 75 in total signed up in support, is reason to pause.