Vancouver International Film Festival
“Hunger” played as part of the Cinema of our Time Series at the 2008 Vancouver International Film Festival.
Many movies about the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland have been made. Few have been as visceral and harrowing as “Hunger”, the debut film from artist Steve McQueen.
The film details the last few weeks of the life of Bobby Sands, who, while in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison in 1981, began a hunger strike to protest the British government’s refusing to grant Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners political status. The film begins amidst the “Blanket and No Wash” strikes at the prison. I won’t detail the specifics, but I will say that it requires a strong stomach and an open mind to take in the visual and emotional onslaught that “Hunger” presents.
Surely one of the most memorable and effective scenes in “Hunger” is a 22-minute scene, filmed in one amazingly unbroken take, of Bobby Sands talking with Catholic Priest Father Dominic Moran. The small talk turns to a fascinating debate about the practicality and morality of Sands’ actions and his imminent hunger strike.
Without this brilliant scene, and the approach that director McQueen takes with it, the film would risk being so visually strong, with its artful framing and long uninterrupted silences, that it would become just one beautiful and disturbing scene after another, with no context to the complex political and human story behind it all.
It’s not surprising that that spectacular scene, and the film itself, was co-written by Enda Wash, a playwright, as it isn’t surprising that visual artist McQueen is the other writer.
The visuals and words blend to create a picture of a world that’s hard to imagine just by seeing it or just by hearing about it.
To call “Hunger” an art film is both fitting and overly simplistic. What it truly does so well is comment on this particular conflict and moment in history, while still being universal and relevant in its portrayal of human beings and their struggles and personal convictions. For example, one scene seems to set up Bobby Sands as a martyr, while another affirms him as stubborn and unmoving, and so on.
The portrayal of the prisoners is sure to stir up controversy, because it doesn’t condemn them in black-and-white terms. But the portrayal of Bobby Sands and the other prisoners is certainly not entirely sympathetic. Bobby Sands is played by actor Michael Fassbender in a way that allows us to sympathize, disagree, pity, and despise his character all at the same time. We feel his actions are inexcusable, while his convictions and beliefs are spectacularly human.