Monday, 20 October 2008


HUNGER dir. Steve McQueen

What does it mean to depict an historical event as a physical experience? To relate to it as series of actions carried out by and upon different human bodies? These were questions raised by Steve McQueen's Hunger, and his depiction of the lives of IRA prisoners in the Maze prison, inparticular the death by hunger strike of Bobby Sands.

Such a method invites an audience response that also responds  viscerally, rather than sentimentally or according to pre-held beliefs and sympathies. It is also an approach that necessitates giving attention to all those involved - prison guards as well as prisoners. Finally, through its physicality it becomes a method preoccupied with difference: putting the bodies gestures, action, language and behavior in relation to a role or uniform, the camera constantly looking for moments of revelation or rupture.

Steve McQueen has asserted frustration in interviews at applications of the label of artists' film to Hunger. But it does seem that his methodology in Hunger is one that draws a lot on the sense of time, space and image in much video-installation work - including, of course, McQueen's own. The films astonishing success is how that also becomes absorbed into a narrative style of film making, and the emotional pressures of its particular story.

McQueen's film, then, creates with visceral intensity the conditions in H-Block where prisoners refuse to wash and wear prison uniforms, in protest at the denial of Political Prisoner status by the British government. They live naked in cells, covering the walls with their own excrement. McQueen shows the details of their daily lives, from private moments of sitting or masturbating, to the dynamics of family visits, and the violence enacted upon prisoners through beatings and forced washings.

Perhaps this is the films contribution: to shift such history on to the level of individuals and of tiny details. The cut hands of the prison guard that begin the film, soaked in water, and which turn out to be because of punching prisoners; the tiny rolled up letters passed mouth to mouth during family visits' and, most powerfully and horrifically, the emaciated body of Bobby Sands as he starves himself to death. 

Within this space of attention, this emotional realism, McQueen finds a surprisingly large stylistic palette to support his aim of conveying the experience in the most vivid manner possible: some scenes, such as Bobby Sands near to death, are shot blurred, and there is a restrained use of scenes that have a poetic, imagistic quality: a prison guard stood in falling snow, or trees full of crows against a purple sky. This occurs several times in the film and features as Sands vision before he dies, suggesting that much of life in the prison has become a premonition of death, for both prisoners and guards. 

It can seem inappropriate to focus on the technical aspects of film-making in the face of such horrific content, but I think its through such devices that McQueen attains impact and politics in a way much more shocking than, say, the histrionics of a Ken Loach film. If Loach risks theatricalising experience, for McQueen the tension is precisely about how the film balances its details. They are where the film attains its impact, but they must always be held within the narrative. How much imagery and duration can the narrative hold without breaking the imaginative grip and letting the image itself predominate over the experience? 

All of which is to somewhat unify a film whose different sections actually contain very different strategies. The first focusses on other prisoners in the maze, setting a context, which only at the very end introduces the figure of Sands. The second section consists of a dialogue between Sands and the catholic priest, in which the priest refuses to sanction Sands notion of a hunger strike, and Sands outlines the reasons for his commitment to the strike. After this demonstration of Sands verbal wit, force, energy and belief, the film cuts quickly to the advanced stages of the hunger strike as he gradually loses consciousness, hallucinates - seeing himself as a young boy in the cell, then running in the woods of Donnegal - and dies. The priest challenges Sands about whether he wants to be a martyr and is thinking of history books, and McQueen's strategies are a lot about how to avoid carrying out this act thirty years later. 

The third section highlights how the focus on details reaches an almost hallucinatory pitch, as whole aspects of "the troubles" and human nature are revealed through the behavior of guards towards Sand and his gradually lifeless body. There's a tenderness to one guard who adds cream to Sands sore ridden body, whilst another positions the chair so Sands can see "UDA" tattooed on his knuckles. When I visited Northern Ireland, having seen so much imagery on the television, it was a shock to see the actual physical scale of the towns and areas where the dispute was enacted, somehow much smaller than its TV representation implied. McQueen's method follows that onto a far more micro-level - often, as here, acted out on the surface of the skin itself. 

This has prompted some criticism that the film lacks context. But that ignores the astonishing presence that elsewhere or outside attains in the film. One of the prisoners obtains a smuggled radio to hear the news, and political and personal realities become condensed onto the tiny letters smuggled in and out during visiting sessions. Margaret Thatcher's speeches on Northern Ireland also just appear in the film - as a disembodied voice - on several occasions. Sands dialogue with the priest is in part a debate about reality inside and outside the prison, and the relationship between them, with the priest insistent that Sands has lost touch with humanity , and Sands - like this film - asserting the inseparability of his own physical torture and that broader world.  


This, of course, is where the film does to a degree align us with Sand's position, as it asserts the impossibility of refusing to pay attention to the physical reality of a starving  body. Never through argument or judgement, but through the outcomes of his methodology as an artist, McQueen examines history, accusing and condemning those who can remain indifferent to and removed from such horrific physical realities.