The Turner Prize has never really rocked my boat.
Perhaps it’s too many installations that make me go, “WTF?” when I see them, wondering how on earth a huge monetary prize is awarded to that particular artist. Steve McQueen is one of those Turner Prize winners, and, he’s moved his focus to film; a decision for which I am thankful.
McQueen has made his first film, one that is riveting in both its subject matter and in the filming process itself. ‘Hunger’ covers the last months of IRA activist, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). Sands was part of a group of prisoners in 1981 at the (in)famous Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, during the height of ‘The Troubles’. They had lost their political prisoner status, and were now simply terrorists held by their ‘enemy’--the British Crown. Protests were staged in the prison on a regular basis, with the men refusing to shower or bathe or wear clothing. They chose to make their jail cells places of horror, including piles of uneaten food, and excrement smeared walls. Both sides hated each other with bone deep hate, choosing to strike against the other side whenever possible.
I remember my Gran speaking with ice edged distain in her voice of the English and how they treated the Irish. She’d tell me of how they had driven her grandparents out of Ireland during the Great Famine, how they starved and suffered in the ships bringing them to America. She loathed the English (even as she taught me the proper English way to have tea) and had no logical reason why. It is something I've seen more than once, this long-standing hard-eyed fury. I met a Northern Irish waitress last summer, who told me of how she was a new immigrant (read hoped not to be found after her visa ran out) and her life in Belfast. “On Sunday, we’d lob rocks at the Proddie kids.” she said. When I questioned her as to why, she said, “I’ve no idea. It’s something you did.”
Is the hatred DNA locked? Is it generational, with the original flash points long ago, and far away? So long ago, no one knows why they still fight, it’s become something you...do without questioning the reason behind the action, the words, the emotions.
The film does not vilianise nor make heroes of either side, it only points out the events of the H Block hunger strike. Both sides were reduced to a life within the walls, and it shows how hate and anger can erode a soul. McQueen never makes this a martyrdom for the strikers, nor a statement of justification for the prison guards and warden. Instead, he gives us the facts, and allows us to make our own decisions. He takes on the role of storyteller, and it is a role he wears well.
It is harsh, brutal at times, almost unbearable to watch. McQueen makes great use of long static shots (the conversation between Sands and a priest is 21 minutes long, and filmed in an uninterrupted take--breathtaking film perfection) and shows us, with the dearth of dialogue, how sound or silence can be used as a weapons. It’s very effective as a filming tool.
There are crafted juxtapositions through out, from the sight of a British policeman quietly sobbing behind a wall as prisoners run a gauntlet while being beaten, to the cruel reality of Sands’ existence and the almost reverence shown in the kind way he was treated by those same guards as he lay dying.
Gandhi used starvation as a tool to passively resist, relying, I believe, on the world eye to cause things to change, to prevent him from dying. Bobby Sands did not have that same stay of death. Fassbender’s image at the end is turn your head away painful. This film is an uncompromising view of what humans are capable of; in violence, in decency, in using their own lives as a means of protest.
I watched and wondered--would I have that kind of belief in my cause that I'd give over my life? It's a question I think McQueen wants us to ask ourselves, one whose answer may surprise us once it's known.
Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen, written by Steve McQueen and Edna Walsh. In limited release in the US on March 20, 2009. Rated ‘R’ for nudity and violence.