The Humanity of Hunger (2008)

When Steve McQueen decided to take on the task of telling a portion of Bobby Sands’ story, he captured not only the life of the man who gave up his own for the betterment of others and a cause that he truly believed in, but he also captured the entire essence of the movement that encompassed both the IRA prisoners and the guards that were following orders against them. Hunger is a special film that is quiet in its execution but powerful in its impact. When placed under the guidelines of Mike Wayne’s Third Cinema criteria, Hunger is able to convey a message that both informs its viewers while also calling them to research the man and the movement that has been portrayed, allowing the film to become interactive and more than just a movie and with McQueen choosing to focus on the humanity of the situation rather than the politics of it all, the power is truly lasting and resonates long after the final credits have finished rolling.

Hunger tells the dramatized account of Bobby Sands who led a hunger strike once incarcerated in Her Majesty’s Maze Prison in order to receive political recognition and to improve the dismal living conditions that he and the other prisoners apart of the Irish Republican Army were being forced to endure. They weren’t calling for anything too radical, just to be able to wear their own clothing, receive mail and visitors, and to not be classified as criminals but rather prisoners of war and when their requests/demands were continually ignored, they took matters into their own hands and asserted their power in a very quiet manner and quiet is a key to the victories of Hunger. The film opens with the harsh, abrasive sounds of many protesters slamming trash can lids onto the ground with no dialog spoken and then goes completely silent and shows who the audience comes to find out is one of the Maze prison guards as he prepares himself for work, soaking his busted up hands in warm water as he prepares for another rough day. McQueen juxtaposes the opposing sides of the struggle throughout the entire film and by opening with it, it grants some insight as to how these two groups of people are going to be viewed. They’re going to be viewed as humans, flawed and insecure but taking a stance on whichever side they chose or fell into and there, McQueen shows both sides as victims of circumstance and choice rather than one simply being an oppressor of the other.

That isn’t to say that both parties get off easy through McQueen’s lens, though. What makes the quiet so effective is how McQueen lets it linger for long periods of time before assaulting the audience with extremely brutal images, images that hit harder once it is remembered that this is based on the true accounts and stories of the prisoners and guards who lived and died through this. In an interview included in the supplemental material on the Criterion edition of the film, McQueen states, “I really wanted the audience to participate in this hunger strike, to drag them willingly or unwillingly through this film.” He recalls how heard of Sands and his death as a child and says, “The whole idea, as a child, [of] someone who doesn’t eat but gets louder or doesn’t eat in order to be heard… it just stayed with me but also because it had been swept underneath the carpet for twenty-seven years… and it is the most important event in recent British times, there’s no denying it.” He continues on about how he initially approached the project with his sympathies toward Sands and all the other prisoners detained in the Maze prison but “then when you get into it further, you see what happened to the prison officers. You see the circumstances behind what was going on so then you see this huge tragedy, really, of not left or right but people.”

In order for him to accurately portray the events that transpired he had to show the truth of how the inmates and guards lived day to day in extraordinary circumstances that they had to force themselves to believe as ordinary. All involved had to live with a lack of bathing, prisoners smearing feces on the walls of their cells, and them pouring bowls of their urine under their doors and into the hallways. The prisoners had to dwell in it while the guards had to respond and then go home to their families as if nothing happened to make McQueen’s critical commitment to the humanity of it all rather than the politics of the situation while still politicizing the audience with its amount of information, calling them to draw conclusions about the whole for themselves rather than choosing/presenting a side for them. Dan P. Lee, covering McQueen and his new film 12 Years a Slave for Vulture, states that frequent McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender told him that McQueen, “‘loves human beings,’ even terrible ones. ‘The great thing about Steve, in terms of looking at characters and telling stories, is that he doesn’t judge any of it. It all is what it is. Through observation, you try to gain some kind of understanding, as opposed to judgment.’ He calls McQueen’s approach ‘almost journalistic.’”

Going off the claims to McQueen having a journalistic approach to his filmmaking and the characters he chooses to portray, he mentions in the Criterion interview how he and his producer Robin Gutch and co-writer Enda Walsh began the creation process by conducting a lengthy series of interviews with former prisoners, a prison guard, and priests, all people who were involved or around during the time of the events they were going to portray because he wanted to know everything there was to know and ask “even the most banal questions.” His goal wasn’t to just tell a story but rather to inform the audience, evoke a deep emotional response, and bring to light a piece of history that he felt had been criminally overlooked or altogether forgotten about for far too long. He discusses how the film’s crew was, in a way, the most important factor in the entire work and message of the film because many of them were around during the time of the events and some were even directly affected due to their family members being guards or friends of guards/prisoners and he speaks of how important it is that these people who were so young when the subject initially occurred, now had the opportunity to finally physically do something about their experiences and relations by creating a film and allowing others to gain the knowledge of the reality that they and many others had to live through.

McQueen captured the realism and intimate intensity of life behind the walls of the prison by recreating it as closely, though he claims identically, to the real thing as possible after being denied permission to film inside of the actual facility. He claims that he captured this by not using any breakaway walls in the set which forced the closeness and cramped discomfort that the film exhibits to shine due to the literal closeness and cramped discomfort that he and the crew/actors experienced while filming under such conditions. This attention to detail shows how strongly he felt towards how the film would be received, not in a critical sense but more of how the audience to react while watching and after watching and what they would be able to learn and take away from their experience and that’s what he achieves, Hunger is an experience and a tool for spreading awareness through its meticulous attention to detail so that nothing is misrepresented or lost in translation.

In a piece written for entitled “How to Starve Yourself to Death,” Andrew O'Hehir discusses the authenticity of the film by bringing up how McQueen made this film for reasons beyond himself. There was no immediate gain, the IRA hunger strikes and the movement were fading away from cultural relevance, there were no sensational news stories that prompted the creation of this film but rather that McQueen and his film crew had a deep seeded passion for the subject and felt strongly enough to bring it all back to light because they felt this needed to be remembered, the fact that humans were subjected to these horrific circumstances was/is important and it was not something they were going to allow for the public to forget. O’Hehir also discusses the film's use of silence, minimal dialog, and long single shots, stating how though the film is based upon concrete details and characters, it’s presented in such a manner that it feels very abstract in its delivery causing for a unique and emotional cinematic journey. McQueen mentioned his reasoning for this in his interview with Criterion by reminding that he was initially a visual artist who made gallery work so his intention with the long, slow, and often completely still shots come from his background in photography and other still art forms. He feels that the images should speak louder than the words and that we as audiences just need to shut up, to stop talking and just watch the emotions presented on the screen and really take in the feelings. He lingered on shots that cause disgust because those involved had to linger with it as well whether it be the hallway soaked in urine that a guard had to clean or the cell room completely covered in feces that a guard had to power wash down but not before McQueen made us notice the unsettlingly beautiful image of a spiral that the prison had created in the center of this depravity. 

There is a scene in the film, arguably the most prominent part, that is a twenty-three-minute-long single shot of Fassbender as Bobby Sands having a conversation with a Catholic priest portrayed by Liam Cunningham. McQueen states that the importance of this scene is that it contains the most amount of continuous dialog or just dialog in general, that is present throughout the entirety of the film. It was shot in such a way that the two men almost look like silhouettes and stay that way for almost the entire duration of their conversation, just sitting there speaking to each other and sharing cigarettes while shadows lay over them. McQueen says this was so that the audience would take notice and sit forward as they attempt to catch every word of the conversation, awakening a part of their brains that hadn’t been used throughout previous portions of the film.

Through everything that McQueen and his crew accomplished in telling the story of Bobby Sands and the other prisoners confined behind the walls of Her Majesty’s Maze Prison, they were rewarded with heaps of critical and audience acclaim upon the release of the film. It was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 where it won the Caméra d’Or (Golden Camera) award, which is given to the best first feature film from a filmmaker. From there, the film only continued to grow in acclaim and success and continued to receive awards for its performances (Michael Fassbender, British Independent Film Awards), cinematography (Sean Bobbit, British Independent Film Award and Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema), and was even recognized as the best film of the year (Chicago International Film Festival and Evening Standard British Film Awards) regardless of its first feature standing. Chris Darke, in an essay entitled “On the Threshold” included with the Criterion edition of the film, discusses the enthusiasm that the film was greeted with and the prizes it received and states, “Its reception in the British press was almost unanimously approving, which was somewhat surprising given that the film leaves little doubt about where McQueen’s sympathies lie, despite his avoidance of idolizing his protagonist.” This was interesting to note. Though McQueen does show both sides of the issue with the prisoners and the guards, he does keep a longer and more intimate focus on the prisoners and as Darke notes, it’s intriguing to see how universal the acceptance was among the people who witnessed these events as they occurred and were around to see and hear about the prisoners as they were initially being detained.

McQueen and his crew created a film that informs and enthralls, is both subtle and bold, and is all at once quiet and loud. The presentation never attempts to condemn the men involved, instead, it shows both sides as victims of circumstance with both acting out according to whichever side they happen to be on. McQueen claims his film is not political but rather “having to do with the pressures forced on individuals by the political situations that governments create” (Darke, “On the Threshold”). It’s not a film about who is right and who is wrong. It’s about all the men and people who were a part of it in any way. It’s about humanity and human interaction. It calls these specific horrors back to the surface to show audiences a glimpse into the depths that we are all capable of sinking to.

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