Steve Mcqueen's 'Hunger'
This film is very raw in its depiction of bodies, as are all of Mcqueen's films. However, this one follows the grim emaciation of the body that occurs when it is starved. The main character, a Bobby Sands, starves himself as part of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, which was an Irish political protest against the British Government's withdrawal of special category status for Irish political prisoners. Essentially, the prisoners were treated as civilians rather than political figures, and the strike, which began with a no wash protest (prisoners refusing to leave their cells to wash and smearing their own excrement over the walls), was led by Sands, one of the IRA's (Provisional Irish Republican Army) commanding officers.
The protests that preceded Sands' hunger strike were aimed at securing five demands:
- the right not to wear a prison uniform;
- the right not to do prison work;
- the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
- the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
- full restoration of remission lost through the protest.
To me, starvation was not the main focus of the film. Rather, it is the question of brutality and inhumanity in human beings. Mcqueen unflinching aims the camera at human beings in their best moments and their worst.
The film opens with an Irish prison officer (however it could be anyone at first) in his daily ritual of preparing to go to work. It is a rather mundane beginning. The first sign that everything is not right with the world comes when the officer checks his car for bombs--cut to a scene of him washing bloodied knuckles and standing outside smoking in a light snow, bloodied hand in pocket.
Even in these opening scenes the film conveys a lot through minimalism. There are almost no words spoken. It is through gestures and glances that we read character's psychologies. This continues through the rest of the film.
What strikes me most is how Mcqueen enters the narrative from both sides of the political struggle. From the beginning where he follows the prison officer Mcqueen switches to entering the prison cells.
We see prisoners smearing their walls with their own faeces, we see an inmate writing a note to a loved one on a scrap of paper and sucking it into his nose (to hide it from patrol during visitation), we see inmate heaping their dung into a circular ramp to funnel their urine underneath their doors. This is humanity at its most bestial but also its most cunning. In a weird irony, by refusing normal prison treatment (clothes, bath, food) the prisoners retain the dignity that comes with the ability to choose, but lose all other dignities--which raises the question: what truly gives a human dignity? Is it choice? Or is it all the amenities that are given us (that we don't necessarily choose)? Hence, by refusing to accept anything that would diminish their identity as members of the republican nationalist party, Sands and the other prisoners are clinging on to the one thing they still have power over: their chosen identity. And this is all that any of us have at the end of the day--who we have chosen to be. If we have that taken away then we are essentially 'no-one.' If we don't take a stand for anything we don't stand for anything. I feel like this is the essential point of the film.
At one point Mcqueen shows the prisoners being taken and forcibly washed, shaved, and clad in prison clothes against their will while their cells are power-hosed clean. At another point riot police line up and the prisoners are made to scramble through a 'gauntlet' naked while being beaten. Then their anuses and mouths are probed. It is a brutal scene, but nothing is skipped. In perhaps the most poignant moment of the film we see -in the same frame- this scene of violence and a lone riot policeman crying on the other side of a wall. It is this capacity to understand humanity's infinite capacity for brutality and their infinite capacity for empathy that sets Mcqueen's films apart.
Overall the film is very slow and focuses on small moments so that the viewer can have space for reflection. There is not much dialogue. The dialogue that is present is mainly condensed into a 17-minute unbroken sequence between Sands and a visiting priest, in which Sands explains some of the rationale behind his resolve.
I appreciate that Mcqueen does not heroicize Sands or any of the other prisoners. Rather, he simply documents. However, it is the choices in the manner of documentation that make Mcqueen's films. It is more in the how than in the what.