Unbelievable Humanity – Steve McQueen and the Politics of HUNGER

HUNGER, the debut feature film by black British visual artist Steve McQueen, is quite extraordinary on many levels. It is ludicrously well-made for a first-timer; it may well be the most brutal picture ever made about the modern prison system (surpassing GHOSTS…OF THE CIVIL DEAD, EVERYNIGHT…EVERYNIGHT, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, THE BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ and leaving such fantasies as ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION looking like children’s books: What if Daddy went to Prison?) Historically, it is the first film to depict with an unflinching eye the horrors of HMP Maze – the one set up purely to deal with IRA prisoners. But most importantly, this film is emotionally extraordinary – and not for the reasons you might expect.

HUNGER is being marketed – and must be marketed – as the story of Bobby Sands, the IRA Soldier who starved himself to death at HMP Maze in 1981 as part of a larger hunger strike amongst the prisoners of that particular prison. But the film only introduces Sands a third of the way in, and we only watch his hunger strike for about the last half hour of a two-hour movie. The rest of the film is concerned with the prison itself – its day-to-day operations, its method – and its people. And it is here that the film gets really interesting, politically.
The first character we are introduced to – and the character we follow for the first entire third of the film, as though he is our “lead” – is the Prison Warden, Raymond Lohan, played brilliantly by Stuart Graham. This character, from the beginning, is portrayed in an entirely sympathetic light. In the first few minutes of the film, we watch him kiss his wife goodbye, then check his car for an explosive. When he turns the key in his car’s ignition and doesn’t burst into flames, we see his wife allow the house curtains to fall shut – another morning, another day my husband hasn’t been assassinated in my driveway.
Soon we’re seeing Lohan washing his knuckles out in (obviously) a bathroom within the prison. He winces with pain and we wince with him – but we know why those wounds are there. We’re ahead of the game now, and we’re meant to be.
For the next hour or so, violence reigns. We see the prison dealing (or attempting to deal) with the two-fold “strike” of the inmates: a “blanket strike” (they will not wear prison uniform, only their blankets – hence the term) and a self-explanatory “no-wash” strike. The way the prison deals is beyond horrific. This part of the movie is unbelievably unpleasant to watch, and, personally, one of the major things I could think about was: I must never be in such a place.
The narrative perspective during this part of the film – and the film definitely falls into parts – is so unconventional as to be somewhat revolutionary. While we started with our protagonist as Lohan, the Warden, the focus then shifts to a new prisoner, Davey Gillen, as he is indoctrinated into this hell known as Maze Prison. But then, as he arrives in his cell, he meets – through a gentle and amazing camera move – his cellmate, Gerry Campbell. Suddenly, it’s HIS movie.
And then, thirty-five minutes in or so, in another, extraordinarily delicate move of camera and sound, we suddenly realise that we’ve been introduced to Bobby Sands, and that he MIGHT just take over the picture.
But he doesn’t – yet. he lurks in the background, a force we can feel but cannot always see. And while we wait for the inevitable – we only saw this film to watch him starve to death, right? – other things happen, of unbelievable humanity.
One is what happens to Lohan. The way this is depicted is truly sympathetic – a true cry for peace on all sides. Lohan is killed with his Ma, and Ma, as we all know, is to the Irish, unassailable. But here we see the brutality of all sides, and realise we’re not seeing a partisan picture but a brutalist picture – a picture of awful humanity in its worst throes, either side be damned.
The other moment we see – and this is a major moment, a moment that very obviously has been important from early draft stage, because it is SO important for the film’s meaning – is one of a British Police Officer give up his post during a particularly nasty operation within the prison – and weep like a child. We have seen the brutality (in this case, an operation designed to check prisoners’ assholes and mouths to see if they have contraband, involving massive and incredible beatings) and we continue to see it, in splitscreen, as we also see this solo officer cry. We never hear this character speak nor do we know his name, but the message is clear: How could the others DO this? What in the world was going on here?
McQueen’s film is brilliant. It will be seen by a very small percentage of the population. It is so brutal and intense that I can imagine a lot of people walking out once it hits the “mainstream cineamas”. I certainly can’t recommend it to my parents. In style, it seems to me closest to the Australian Brutal Cinema of BAD BOY BUBBY (the first 33 minutes) and the aforementioned GHOSTS…OF THE CIVIL DEAD and EVERYNIGHT…EVERYNIGHT. But this film is potentially more difficult for a general audience that even those extreme depictions of prison life – because it is real. You cry from the beginning and you weep at the end. It is unbearable. I forced myself to sit through it. And I’m very glad I did. It deserves every prize that it has won. It is incredible, radical cinema.

2 thoughts on “Unbelievable Humanity – Steve McQueen and the Politics of HUNGER

  1. Loving the blog so far CJ. Great post on Hunger – the first I’ve read that rises to the film’s structural challenge by acknowledging its unusual technique of shifting the protagonist. You are so right to question the tag that’s being attached to this film, that it’s “the story of Bobby Sands”. It isn’t – at least, not in any straightforward way.

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