Steve McQueen, Hunger

By Fusco, Maria | Art Monthly, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Steve McQueen, Hunger


Fusco, Maria, Art Monthly


Steve McQueen, Hunger, on general release, UK, October 31.

I am probably the world's worst person to write about Steve McQueen's Hunger. Born in Belfast and brought up in a Nationalist ghetto in the 1980s, my memories and therefore my expectations of anything concerning Bobby Sands, the IRA and the Brits (as we used to call all forces of legal authority) are overwhelming, and highly subjective.

Hunger is undoubtedly an important film, presenting as it does yet another shameful episode in recent British history; its significance has been vindicated in the form of international plaudits including the Camera d'Or at Cannes Film Festival, and an International Federation of Film Critics award. Not since Richard Hamilton's The Citizen, painted between 1981 and 1983, has the world of art (produced by non-Irish practitioners) demonstrated a direct involvement with Northern Irish politics.

McQueen is very well placed to make such a film. The level of critical interrogation that he has consistently applied to his practice over the last 15 years is extraordinarily thorough and impressively effervescent. The detailed deliberation of McQueen's eye as an artist rather than as a perhaps more conventional filmmaker, contributes to the film's fetid mise en scene and emotional intensity.

But there is one thing missing: politics, with a capital 'P'. For while Hunger's narrative is completely driven by political motivations, it is hard to read the exterior political positioning of such action from the film alone. Bobby Sands was the first of ten hunger strikers to die in quick succession between May and October 1981 in HM Prison Maze, more popularly known as the H-Blocks, a huge facility specifically built to intern and segregate the overwhelming number of political prisoners in Northern Ireland. The hunger strikers, all Republican, acted out their demands through their bodies, their aim being to regain the 'Special Category Status' as political prisoners that had been revoked in 1976. The 1981 hunger strike was the endgame of a sequence of increasingly visceral and disturbing actions by IRA prisoners, such as the 'blanket protest', where prisoners rejected prison issue uniforms, and the 'dirty protest', where they refused to slop out their cells and smeared their walls with shit. The month before his death Sands was elected a Member of Parliament at Westminster and, as a result, the law was swiftly changed to prevent convicted prisoners from being nominated as candidates in UK elections.

Hunger is a story in three parts, each successively decelerating the film's temporal and spatial action to a point of grim (and possibly redemptive) stillness. The first third introduces the audience to the base regime at the Maze, through the eyes of a Davey Gillen, a young IRA man who refuses to wear standard issue prison uniform. The audience is witness to the violence, the filth and the ingenuity of daily jail life (including smuggling uncensored communications to and from the outside world, in various bodily orifices) culminating with the introduction of the main character of Bobby Sands. The audience's first sight of Sands is a brusquely disturbing scene, in which Sands is forcibly shorn and scrubbed clean with a yard brush, an attempt by the authorities to erase prisoners' outward signifiers of protest.

The second third is a 20-minute centrepiece, shot almost entirely in one long take, in which Sands and Father Dominic Moran--remarkably subtle performances by Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham respectively--explicate the larger 'plot' of the film. Their taut banter is at a mortal pitch as they challenge each other (puzzlingly alone, where are the guards?) across the table in an empty visiting room. This scene is reminiscent of Bergman's famous chess game The Seventh Seal in reverse: instead of Death trying to win the Knight's life through strategy, the figure in black is trying to argue for life. …

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