Hunger (2008)

Article excerpt

In late December 2008 the British government released a new round of state papers under the 30-year rule. Among the files uncensored was a document from the office of the then British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, which revealed that the IRA had sent a message to the British government in 1978 indicating that it was willing to enter talks concerned with ending its violent campaign in the North. The offer was rejected outright by the British government with the then permanent under-secretary at the Northern Ireland Office, Sir Brian Cubbon, remarking that it was "essential that we should not say or do anything in reply that gives any hint that we have considered their message or are taking it seriously". (1) Whether this offer might have provided a realistic opportunity to begin a peace process that would take until the early 1990s to begin, and cost many thousands of lives in the interim, we will never know. However, watching Steve McQueen's Hunger, one is struck by two prominent features of the film--both an absence of dialogue, and a real concern to facilitate it when the opportunity arises.

More than a few eyebrows were raised when it was announced in May 2007 that the London born director of Grenadan descent's debut feature film would concern the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. The Turner Prize winning artist seemed an unlikely candidate to tackle one of the darkest and most traumatic moments in recent Irish history when ten men voluntarily starved themselves to death to be classed as political rather than criminal prisoners. It was a crucial moment in Irish history, and particularly for the North of this Island that would begin a move to political, rather than military means, by the Republican movement represented in McQueen's film in the election of Sands himself shortly before his death. Yet the human willingness to choose death in extraordinary circumstances had been apparent in previous work by McQueen, in particular his 2002 cinematic installation Carib's Leap, a work named after a cliff in Grenada where, in 1651, more than 40 indigenous Caribs chose to jump to their deaths to avoid surrender, and enslavement, to their French colonisers. The resonance of the Hunger strike with this act could not have been lost on McQueen.

The Hunger strike has appeared in several films over the past twelve years, marking partly the developing peace process and the increasing willingness of filmmakers to engage with a topic long thought too controversial to contemplate. Terry George's Some Mother's Son (1996) offered a largely sanitised account that adopted the perspective of the non-aligned and sympathetic figure of the mother of one of the strikers to explore the traumatic events. However, the non-engagement and distance of Kathleen Quigley (Helen Mirren) from both the culture and events themselves, reflected in one extraordinary moment when she expresses absolute ignorance of the expression 'Tiocfaidh ar La'--and this from a schoolteacher in a nationalist school (!)--, made for a film of limited insight or resonance. Both Les Blair's H3 (2001) and Maeve Murphy's account of female prisoners' protest in Silent Grace (2001) provided significant representations, though both ultimately adopted a largely conventional approach to the events. McQueen, however, approaching the topic from both outside the culture of Ireland and conventional film, offers, in terms of representations of the North, a distinctly novel approach. Gone are the generic imperatives that have dominated representations of the North, which have frequently attempted to apply familiar tropes of the thriller or drama genres against a Northern Irish context. Instead for McQueen it is firstly the visual and secondly the interactive possibilities of cinema that are exploited, apparent in the manner through which the film features striking visual compositions without the necessity to explain or explicate and also allows a space for the audience to engage and contemplate at recurring moments. …