Pain & Resistance: Steve McQueen's HUNGER
Steve McQueen’s HUNGER (2008) is a powerful, meditative work of art peering into the 1981 Irish hunger strike in the Maze Prison spearheaded by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). What’s so extraordinary yet painfully captivating about this film is the explicit images McQueen drives into the heart of the narrative. Aside from the 17-minute-long dialogue between Sands and a priest which consequently is a static shot of deeply emphasized information about who and why Sands is hell bent on this hunger strike. It moves so fluidly into the third and final descent of his journey in some agonizingly heartbreaking imagery which sums up into one word; suffering. He’s suffering for his cause. He’s adamant in his beliefs despite how a priest attempts to dissuade him from something that will ultimately result in his death. And, not only was Sands the only prisoner to strike, there were 9 other lives who perished in that fight.
Regardless of how you look at the history of the IRA, and the British government this film is very specific on a piece of history where a tumultuous stance of resistance eventually makes the British government give into the prisoner’s demands after the fact. But drawing back to the meditative essence of this film, McQueen’s focus is the Maze prison and the abusive, inhumane conditions these IRA prisoners were forced to endure along with the harsh brutality these prison guards were relentless in a dizzying portrayal with the use of slowed motion.
Not only does the toll weigh on the prisoners but the prison guards themselves are living with this driving force to hammer in their authority which is viscerally captured in these subtle moments. When a squad unit is called in to infiltrate there’s a faint split screen with the guards clubbing the prisoners for not bathing as a stance of protest while a solo guard in the corner is worked up over a demeaning moment of humanity. Or the moment after a prison guard attempts to beat Sands in the face but punches a wall instead. He’s left visibly shaken while soaking his bloodied knuckles in a sink of water. It’s thought provokingly brilliant because any kind of dialogue or voice over would completely tarnish this entire piece. You see the image, and you can essentially feel the psychological aspect of it because it has more power than anything words can convey.
When Sands is visited by the priest, he shares with him about how he was a cross country runner in his youth which sculpted him into who he’s become in the present. And with that stark tenacity to endure through copious periods of time to achieve a specific objective makes the audience connect to Sands then and there. Later, we’re given flashbacks of him running when he was younger at the most crucial moment of the film, it’ll make you weep. Any imagery that can link you from the past to the present will evoke that sense of nostalgia and it is potent.
Aside from the visual aesthetics, the physical transformation Fassbender went through is heavy and fortified with fierce determination to get into that mind space of Sands. He lost 40 pounds and when you see him wither away it’ll break your heart because nothing will sway him from making his statement known.
When you ask why would someone do this? It comes down to not wanting to be labelled a “criminal” but to be given a political status for their misgivings which then you’d really have to dig into the history behind the IRA. As it’s said in a voice over through Margaret Thatcher, “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing, or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing, and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this. There will be no political status.” There’s no pointing at who’s a bad guy or good guy because the ultimate subject here is humanity. Humanity in it’s raw, vulnerable, flawed form and how we one use’s their body as their last and final weapon. There are scenes where streams of urine are being spilled across the guard floor, or feces being smeared on the walls of their tiny decapitated cells. These are all forms of protest. But what’s most disturbing is as he wastes away day by day lying motionless and at times retching his guts out, while ointment’s applied to his bed sores, the prison continuously tempts him with a tray of warm food set next to him. It’s disturbing on so many levels to which there’s such disregard to the sanctity of humanity.
This film isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s startling and riddled with deep sadness and harrowed agony. McQueen does an astounding and enormous job on getting you invested, drawing you into this psychological chamber of abuse affectively branding you with blatant imagery that will stay with you and hopefully give you a greater glance into the harsh realities of standing up for what you believe in.