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Northern Ireland and the cold eye of Steve McQueen’s Hunger

There’s a scene in Steve McQueen’s 2010 film Hunger where the dying Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) lies alone on a bed. The camera moves in circular motions as life leaches from Sands’ cadaverous body. The frame darkens, insects seem to come from Sands’ body, but the sound we hear is that of birds’ wings. It’s an extraordinary image, one which stays in the viewers mind long after.

What are we to make of this?

It is a decisive moment in the film, and seems the essence of what McQueen has to say. There’s a beauty to the image, despite its darkness. Sands’ body has the aesthetic of so many statues of Jesus Christ, perhaps that by Sammartino in the Capella Sanservo, Naples.

But McQueen’s film is not obviously religious. Rather its use of imagery elevates the events of the 1981 Irish Republican hunger strikes – and in particular Sands’ death – to mythic status. Indeed, McQueen is not so much interested in the underlying politics of the period, but in presenting them aesthetically. McQueen is first and foremost a visual director, whose formal sophistication and style dominates his narratives. With the exception of a brilliantly scripted – and theatrically mannered – twenty-five minute dialogue between Sands and a catholic priest about the plan to hunger strike, the film rarely strays onto political or ethical ground. Or if it does, it’s a politics and ethics of another order, the politics and ethics generated by image and form: the starving body; the excrement-smeared wall of the ‘dirty protests’; the cold contours of the Maze prison.

McQueen thus has a cold and distancing eye, both in Hunger and his equally stylized recent film Shame, about a sex addict (also played by the superlative Fassbender), a joyless yet fascinating film. McQueen’s style of framing and composition is descended from the French New Wave, but also clearly reflects his background as a visual artist. Perhaps he is the most striking stylist working in film today.

What makes McQueen so interesting, then, is that his films refuse the reductionism of ‘content analysis’. That is, it is impossible to discuss his films in terms of what they ‘are about’ at the expense of how they are told. The more directly political questions – Is the Irish Republican struggle something worth supporting? Was the Irish Republican Army’s militarist strategy effective or destructive? Should Sands and his comrades be remembered as heroes, villains, or something in between? – seem of little interest at all to McQueen. Instead, we find ourselves meditating on the starved body and the delicacy and fragility of human anatomy. We reflect on the vast emptiness that hovers between individuals, as represented in long silences and in the image of a lone child running through the verdant forest as twilight falls. And we consider the fact that when we die our senses fold in on themselves, shutting out what little connection with others remains – death is a journey we each must make alone.

In a very important sense, then, Hunger is not a historically interested or even accurate film. It chooses not to capture, for example, the collective aspect of the hunger strikers’ actions, the sense of the prisoners as a community, the tone of their discussions, or give us any image of those who went on hunger strike after Sands. During 1981, after all, ten hunger strikers died in total – Sands was only the most prominent. Indeed, we barely get a sense of the strikers’ five demands, which amounted to the re-according of political status, something withdrawn by the British Government in 1976.

Moreover, outside the Maze prison, a significant movement was in existence. As he was dying in the jail, Sands was elected as a Member of British Parliament representing Fermanagh and South Tyrone in a massive electoral campaign. In fact, some claim that the hunger strikes were the making of the Sinn Féin political organisation and that Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness and other Sinn Féin leaders owe their current standing to Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers.

What struck me as I watched the film – which sent me off on a week-long obsession with the Irish Republican movement (an interesting documentary can be found on YouTube) – was how it seemed a work about a history now almost forgotten here in Australia. We can easily forget just how vicious the Thatcher government (and indeed the struggle in Northern Ireland) was, something that The Iron Lady manifestly failed to address. To embark on a hunger strike is serious enough, for ten young men (Sands was twenty-seven years old) to die shows a combination of desperation and single-minded commitment. YouTube clips from Sands’ funeral (a reported 100 000 people lined the streets) only reaffirm this perception, with Sands given an IRA gun salute.

In recent years, the Irish republican struggle has receded from the world stage, though for how long this lasts, particularly in radically changed economic conditions, remains to be seen. Perhaps it is this absence that allows McQueen to fashion it, in Hunger, not so much into a political document but into an image, to use the words of a famous Irishman, of ‘terrible beauty’.

Hunger is available on YouTube.

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Rjurik Davidson is a freelance writer. Rjurik has written short stories, essays, reviews and screenplays. His novel, Unwrapped Sky, was published by Tor Books in 2014. PS Publishing published his collection, The Library of Forgotten Books, in 2010. Rjurik’s screenplay 'The Uncertainty Principle' (co-written with Ben Chessell) is currently in development. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets at @rjurikdavidson

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  1. OK, at the risk of sounding like a total philistine, the notion of turning a political struggle into an aesthetic spectacle seems totally reactionary. Rjurik writes:
    ‘Instead, we find ourselves meditating on the starved body and the delicacy and fragility of human anatomy. We reflect on the vast emptiness that hovers between individuals, as represented in long silences and in the image of a lone child running through the verdant forest as twilight falls. And we consider the fact that when we die our senses fold in on themselves, shutting out what little connection with others remains – death is a journey we each must make alone.’
    On that reading, the film transforms the events it portrays into their opposite. Whatever you think about the hunger strikes, they were only possible precisely because the internees didn’t feel alone — they were able to will themselves to die because they understood themselves as part of a collective. To turn that into a meditation on existential isolation seems quite obscene.

  2. Perhaps there are other questions to consider, which make the film more complex, though. There is first the question of POV – and the early sections are seen not through Bobby Sands’ perspectives, but another inmate (and occasionally, a warder). There is the brief scene where the prisoners meet their visiting families. Then there’s the central dialogue scene, where Sands bounces his hunger-strike rationale against the priest, a scene which portrays him as a cold rationalist, a common portrayals of a revolutionary. All these complicate the film, and I’m not sure quite of their effect. It may be that a structuralist approach (say Macherey’s) to it is useful here – perhaps it is a film of contradictory fragments and silences. Still, it is a film almost entirely devoid of human warmth, much like Shame.

  3. Oh, I’m not trying to sell it. Regardless of its political limitations, it’s still an striking film. There is an interesting question though about the relationship of the aesthetics to the politics, because I’ve met people who have claimed that the aestheticisation of the events makes it all the more effective as a political statement. The way I’ve posed it is to assert that in some ways the aesthetic takes you away from that politics, but there’s no theoretical reason why it couldn’t be the reverse – it would just need to be the ‘right’ aesthetics, the aesthetics which ‘corresponds’ to the political point.

  4. Even if McQueen doesn’t convey it, perhaps needs to be some recognition here of what the protest was about, ie the non-recognition of the political status of prisoners. This is part of the built-in forgetting, the victor’s history, the writing out of the very terms with which these irish prisoners were recognised. If the forms and language of “civilisation” as represented by Thatcher’s Britain are intended to do the work of repressing and forgetting an underlying barbarism then maybe an intervention into that linear understanding is potentially going to appear non-sensible or somehow aestheticised? In this case it is shaped around an insistent remembering of the visceral brutality of the situation, which does give pause to the West’s own self representations particularly in an era of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Also of interest i think is this piece by Ronan Bennett http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/oct/22/maze-prison-film-northernireland-hunger

  5. That was an interesting piece by Bennett. Thanks Gary. Again, I am struck by his mention of how young they all were and how those in their thirties were seen as ancient, from another time. Which is usually the way with radical political movements. Interesting that Bennett views Hunger as more politically sophisticated than films which engage with the politics more conventionally.

  6. I think Hunger is a highly political film, and I’m not sure who the viewers are that would reduce it to merely its aesthetics. The film conveys that this was a mass political protest and that prisoners really died because of their actions, as did people outside the prison walls.

    When you watch the film, you can feel the horror of the British state. When I think of Hunger now (I saw it a few years ago), I can still hear Thatcher’s voice echoing down the corridor refusing to acknowledge any political resistance.

  7. I think Jeff has a point, though I wouldn’t go as far as labelling Hunger’s aesthetic as obscene. It’s an interesting film precisely because of its aesthetic I think. The two-hander between Sands and the priest really kills off the film I think. Sands just becomes a kind of cardboard cutout mouthpiece at that point.
    But as Jack says, the film does communicate something of the dead horror of the Thatcher years.

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