TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 2009

film

Steve McQueen’s Hunger

A HUNGER STRIKE IS AN EXTENDED, anguished diminuendo. The body, with nothing to eat, slowly eats itself. In Ireland, the memory of the Great Hunger, as the historian Cecil Woodham-Smith called it, is an angry sediment in the national consciousness, stirred when hunger strikes again. As it did with Bobby Sands, the incarcerated protagonist of Steve McQueen’s first feature-length film—indeed, titled Hunger—which arrives in American theaters this winter, after winning the Caméra d’Or at Cannes last May. Sands wanted, among other demands, political-prisoner status. He and the nine young Irish Republican Army comrades who in the early 1980s followed him to their deaths by self-starvation were never granted it. To Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister at the time, they were nothing more than criminals who had turned their violence on themselves.

The theme of Hunger elicits a profound sympathy: absolute power imposed on naked vulnerability. Despite the film’s claims of evenhandedness, the audience is with the suffering prisoners held in Maze Prison in Belfast, where extremists from both sides were kept and kept apart. The third party, the prison guards, was drawn from the dominant Loyalist (Protestant) culture. A toxic mix of religious, political, and economic differences poisoned the air of the province, concentrated further inside the prison walls.

McQueen, who brings to the project an artist’s unhurried eye and an exacting technique, constructs a movie that is almost entirely image-driven, apart from one extended scene between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a visiting priest (Liam Cunningham) seated in semi-silhouette on either side of a table before a stationary camera. This twenty-five-minute sequence, already famous, is the ideological core of the film. Scripted by the gifted Irish playwright Enda Walsh, it accomplishes its psychological switch brilliantly. The priest admits to secular envies, human weaknesses, and accuses Sands, who has declared his intention to die, of seeking posthumous glory. Sands reminds him how far the priest and his kind have fallen from the example of the extremist who founded his church and died for it. Fassbender, playing Sands, who was elected a member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone during his hunger strike, shows a matter-of-fact clarity of purpose and an iron will that, according to reports, were possessed by the real Sands.

A harrowing and splendid film, Hunger opens with Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham), a prison guard, soaking bloody knuckles in the bathroom sink of his suburban home. He drives to work (after a quick look under his car for explosives) and gradually inserts himself—changing into his uniform, bantering with other guards—into the prison’s stark corridors and dark cells, where the inmates, refusing to wear prison clothes, survive naked or wearing blankets. A shoulder, an arm, a haunch sometimes shine with Caravaggesque sensuality. Prison habits, pleasures (smoking, masturbation), and ruses (passing information to visitors in compressed balls of cling-wrapped paper by kissing) are the preface to Sands’s first beating. A destructive orgy follows, as the prisoners trash their cells. Enter the riot squad—helmets, shields, truncheons—and the beatings (severe and graphic) begin. The prisoners are held down, their orifices probed, their cells power-washed. Lohan’s knuckles bleed afresh. He takes flowers to his catatonic mother in a nursing home. A man strolls in, shoots Lohan dead, strolls off. (Some thirty guards were assassinated during the Troubles.) The knock at the door, the unprefaced murder, was a signature of the times.

The beatings were excessive and savage, the deprivation of human rights unconscionable. Shameful though all this is, it did not proceed to state-approved torture. Yet this occurred in Northern Ireland, part of the UK. Hunger witnesses the extraordinary fact of a legally elected member of Parliament starving himself to death in a British prison.

The film follows Sands’s decline with calm reasonableness: the white room; the body in the bed. Silence. The parents appear, disappear. A visitor speaks, Sands-in-extremis hears nothing. (Paul Davies’s sound track, here devoid even of ambient sound, is sensitive to each nuance of the film’s narrative. The echoing slam of closing cell doors is standard enough. But the rhythmic crash of the riot squad’s truncheons on plastic shields is unforgettable.) Sands vomits, is bathed, lies emaciated. As he comes to the end, he remembers himself as a young athlete running through the countryside. He dies. Birds wheel and hang in a rather standard, perhaps too consoling image. Wouldn’t it have been more consistent to witness the last spasms of leakages with which martyrs—and the rest of us—expire? A veteran of the Troubles I spoke with disagreed. He welcomed the metaphorical escape. The audience had suffered enough.

Months after the suicide deaths, IRA prisoners were granted most of the concessions the hunger strikers had died for. Tough, admirable, and savagely eloquent though this film is, it leaves Sands’s backstory untold. He helped plant bombs at a furniture showroom in Belfast in 1976. The bombs went off. Nobody died. Shortly after, he and three others were arrested nearby. A gun was found in their car. This was Sands’s second offense. He got fourteen years. Five years later, in 1981, he died. He was twenty-seven.

Irish martyrs have a taste for poetry and generally leave behind them at least one memorable phrase. Sands’s may be this: “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”

Brian O’Doherty is an artist and writer living in New York.