Hunger (2008, Director: Steve McQueen): I’ve been finding it very hard to formulate my thoughts on this film, but as I said to my wife as we walked out of the screening last night, I’d be very surprised if anything else I see at TIFF this year could be better. Director McQueen is a visual artist who is well known for his video installations, but this is his first feature film. Hunger won the Camera d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and I expect it to win many more awards once it’s released theatrically.
The film portrays the events surrounding a hunger strike that took place in 1981 in the Maze prison in Belfast, Northern Ireland. By the time the hunger strike had been called off after 7 months, 10 men had starved themselves to death. The first to die was Bobby Sands, 27-year-old leader of the republican prisoners. Hunger begins by showing a few other peripheral characters but about fifteen minutes in settles on Sands (Michael Fassbender), an intense and defiant man who is leading the jailed members of Catholic paramilitary organizations like the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Irish National Liberation Army in a protest to gain separate status as political prisoners. The problem is that they’re facing a British government led by Margaret Thatcher, a woman for whom compromise was impossible. At the beginning of the film, conditions in the prison are deplorable, made even worse by the prisoners’ practice of dumping their urine into the hallways and smearing their cell walls with feces. They refuse to wear prison uniforms and so are often naked, and they refuse to bathe or shave or have their hair cut. In these barbaric conditions, they look like animals and are treated like animals by the nakedly partisan (ie. Protestant and Unionist) prison system.
But far from using words for exposition, the first third of the film is remarkably sparse in dialogue, but intensely rich with images and, especially, sounds. McQueen uses close up shots of a guard’s bloody knuckles, and we can guess how they were bloodied. We hear the terrifying beat of batons on the riot squad’s shields, and we know that violence is in the air. Even in the silence, we can feel the tension of something threatening to erupt at any moment. When Sands is introduced, it’s in a brutal scene of guards dragging him from his cell to be forcibly shaved and washed. He seems unable to just submit to this humiliation and he’s beaten severely. The camera doesn’t spare us any details. We also see in close ups the way that the prisoners smuggle communications in and out of the prison, using their bodies ingeniously to conceal messages. But after this is discovered, there’s another horrific scene in which each prisoner is submitted to a painful and humiliating body cavity search. It’s wrenching stuff, and when Sands decides to start the hunger strike campaign, it’s almost as if he’s decided that it’s the only form of control he has left over his own body.
The middle section of the film is a tour de force of acting and directorial restraint. In one static two-shot that extends more than twenty minutes, Sands and his priest (Liam Cunningham) argue over the morality and efficacy of using a hunger strike to get what the prisoners want. This section felt like watching a play, and the lack of facial close ups forces the audience to find visual clues in multiple places, in posture and gesture and tone of voice. The interplay between the two characters is compelling and by the end, Sands’ determination has grown.
The final third is almost completely free of spoken dialogue. Instead we watch as Sands’ body wastes away and his mind begins to inhabit a different place. To watch this man do violence to his own body in this way is almost even crueller than the earlier scenes, but he reaches a sort of purity of purpose that lives in his eyes, which are blazing until the very end.
Although this is a narrative film, and based on a real story, the way in which the story is told is almost completely different than most other narrative films. Imagery and sound design are as equally important as dialogue and character development. This was completely absorbing and one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theatre. Maybe that’s why I find myself so inarticulately fumbling to try to describe it.
P.S. In a scene that almost derailed the whole experience, a group of about ten women sat in the front rows and were visited before the screening by actor Michael Fassbender, who proceeded to sign autographs and have his photo taken with each of them as they clucked and screamed and giggled incessantly. My wife and I couldn’t figure out what was going on until at some point in the post-screening Q&A it was mentioned that he had also starred in 300. The irony was thick. From a slick blockbuster accused by many of being a thinly-veiled fascist propaganda piece preparing Americans for a war with Iran to a deeply personal film that explored the value of a single life. The women were undoubtedly impressed by Fassbender’s “ripped” body in the blockbuster, and I wonder how they reacted to seeing his “torn” body in Hunger.
Here is the Q&A with director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender from after the screening: