Director: Steve McQueen
Northern Ireland, 1981. Raymond Lohan, a guard at the Maze prison prepares for work. Lohan’s knuckles are bloodied from an unspecified incident. He appears isolated from his peers and fails to join in with their banter. Davey, an IRA prisoner arrives. He is designated as a non-conforming prisoner when he refuses to wear the prison uniform – he is given a blanket to wear. His cell-mate, Gerry, has begun a “dirty protest” in his cell, smearing the walls with his own excrement. The guards drag the prisoners from their cells by the hair, then brutally beat them without mercy. Lohan’s knuckles were bloodied from a missed punch against a wall.
A large number of riot police arrive at the prison, intimidating the prisoners with the noise of their batons and shields. The riot police then violently attack the prisoners before each has their mouth and anus probed. One prisoner headbutts a guard, after which he is savagely beaten. Lohan is then seen at a nursing home where his senile mother lives. He is killed by an IRA assassin. Bobby Sands is then met by a priest and they discuss the ethics of the hunger strike that Sands is starting. Sands is now well into his strike, his health failing and his body is deteriorating. Sands collapses trying to leave the bath, after his UDA-supporting orderly refused to help. Sands’ parents keep vigil during his last hours of life.
The debut feature by Turner Prize winning artist, Steve McQueen, ‘Hunger’ is a controversial yet artistically brilliant look at life in the notorious Maze Prison, which housed paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Critically acclaimed with some enthusiasm, including being named Sight and Sound’s film of 2008, ‘Hunger’ also played in competition at Cannes in 2008, winning the Golden Camera award for first time film makers.
British films about Northern Ireland are nothing new; whether it’s the more clinical, documentary style of Paul Greenaway’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ or Jim Sheridan’s more emotional dramas such as ‘In The Name of the Father’. These have usually scrutinised the activities of the British army or security services and exposed injustice. What separates ‘Hunger’ from the mould is that it’s a frank and no-holds barred examination of life for those paramilitaries who’ve been imprisoned for their crimes. There’s no injustice beyond the refusal of the Thatcher government to treat these men as political prisoners – in fact, we’re not even aware of the crimes they’ve been imprisoned for.
McQueen demonstrates with some venom precisely how these prisoners were treated in the Maze. From the blankets to cover their nudity when they refused to wear the prescribed prison uniform (wearing it would be accepting one’s a criminal, not a political prisoner) to the savage violence carried out by a partisan police force, which starts with the beatings by the guards and develops into full-blown, shocking violence as perpetrated by riot police, called in wholly unnecessarily, it’s a devastating exposé of the system that punishes with cold malice and eventually creates martyrs. Not that it’s depicted in an entirely one-sided fashion. There’s the deliberate goading as shown by the prisoners’ “dirty protests”, their stubbornness to play ball and their willingness to respond to violence when given the chance. McQueen at least provides a sense of balance, showing both sides of the coin and not condoning or condemning either – perhaps it’s just an atmosphere of madness beyond anyone’s control, yet he’s aware that it begins at the top, with the frequent voiceover of Thatcher and her own biased agenda in Northern Ireland.
As you’d expect from an accomplished visual artist, albeit a first time director, McQueen bestows ‘Hunger’ with a unique aesthetic that differentiates it from any previous films about Northern Ireland. It features all the criteria of the accomplished ‘art film’ for sure; long, silent takes, long shots of empty corridors (which often have the urine of the prisoners seeping out from beneath the doors of the cells with unnerving symmetry) and perhaps to the film’s detriment, a split screen of the violence of the riot police and one policeman’s response as he stays out of it; a poignant look of regret. Add this to Lohan’s more-often-than-not desperate isolation from the violence around him, and there’s a risk that McQueen’s chasing easy sympathy, of showing in a much too facile way the horror of those carrying out the violence upon reflection. There’s also the lazy symbolism of birds flying the nest, used twice – an all too obvious metaphor for freedom that’s most prominently used when Sands finally dies. The Christ parallels also sit a little too uneasily; the self-sacrifice and suffering threaten to afford Sands a martyr’s status.
One also wonders whether the emphasis placed upon the film’s aesthetic undermines its already minimal narrative. It’s not an issue that McQueen doesn’t a logical, coherent or chronological narrative as such. ‘Hunger’ comes across more as a tableux of episodes in the lives of these prisoners, none of which are necessarily connected or adjoining. However, it’s quite easy to question what the purpose of ‘Hunger’ is? What do we learn after 90 minutes? That government policy of not respecting or recognising “political prisoners” trickles its way down to the violence unleashed upon them by a partisan police force? Perhaps so, but the episodes of violence, carried out with such force, overwhelm the film so much that any intellectual or ethical considerations, as shown in the remarkable unbroken 17 minute shot between Sands and a priest, almost become consumed by them.
Some have already seen ‘Hunger’ as part of an unofficial wave of new, arthouse British film making, which might include the likes of ‘Unrelated, ‘Better Things’ and the more recent ‘Helen’. There’s little that connects the films thematically or aesthetically, but these are all low-budget films made on their own terms; a refreshing alternative to the box-office chasing films that usually reach our cinemas. ‘Hunger’ is certainly ambitious, certainly audacious, but there are some reservations that cause concern – the over-emphasis upon the film’s look, the over-use of symbolism that doesn’t really work and the overwhelming demonstrations of physical violence that will easily shock and make one recoil with horror. Still, this is the kind of cinema we’ve been crying out for and the kind of cinema we ought to encourage.