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’.