Who wants to have exactly zero fun watching Michael Fassbender starve himself to death? If there are any takers, I’d love to point you to Steve McQueen’s Hunger, a dramatization of the 1981 Irish hunger strike. McQueen burst onto the scene with this sobering tale of a five-year-long protest by incarcerated members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. In Hunger, McQueen offers up the raw filth of the history, but also reveals the depravity justified by a ruling government when dealing with “enemies”, a timely theme considering the ascension of the surveillance state and hard questions about the incarceration of enemies of the state.
Fassbender plays Bobby Sands, an imprisoned member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who participates in the “blanket” and “dirty” protests. These protests began when the prisoners were stripped of their status as political prisoners, reducing them to common criminals expected to wear prison garb and participate in prison work. The history of this time, cloaked in the embarrassing euphemism of “the Troubles” is certainly controversial and ugly, but the film focuses not on the deeds which landed these men in prison – but their treatment once there.
McQueen masterfully introduces us to this world through the prison guard Raymond Lohan. We see him washing his scabbed-over knuckles, checking his car for bombs, and processing a new prisoner once he arrives at the prison. The prisoner, Davey Gillen, is marked as a “nonconformist prisoner” for refusing to wear the standard prison uniform, stripped naked, and placed in his cell where he covers himself in his blanket (this is the “blanket” protest, Davey is joining it). As we are offered a view of his cellmate and their domicile, we are introduced to the “dirty” protest: as incarcerated members of the IRA were sometimes beaten when encouraged to “slop out” (essentially disposing of their waste bucket), this protest involved abstaining from washing, as well as smearing of feces on the cell walls and spilling of the urine out the doors in unison at a predetermined time. This is the world we are introduced to, nearly free from dialogue, in the first ten minutes of the film. It will get substantially less pretty from here.
Our introduction to Bobby Sands is a violent one. Sands is yanked from his cell, beaten, and his long hair and beard are forcefully cut in between having his head smashed against a stool. Finally, he is thrown into a bathtub, hosed down, and scrubbed with a long brush by three prison guards. Interspersed with similar scenes of violence, we learn more about the lives of these prisoners by observing visits from friends and family. We see notes smuggled from the prisoners to their visitors (or other prisoners) through various means, and see items smuggled in as well, neither of which are welcome sights. We see prison guards cleaning cells and hallways in long static shots of excrement being power-washed away or pushed along with a broom handle. The audience is never protected from the squalid nature of this place, nor the brutality, and it is in this spirit that we are encouraged to contemplate the resolve of men who would symbolize their ideals with such behavior.
Because, ultimately, this is a film about ideas and the struggle to retain them. The climax of the film is starved of nearly all ornament in a scene where Sands sits opposite a priest friend of his, played by Rory Mullen. In this scene, a flat shot of the two men lasts seventeen minutes without a cut or any movement of the camera. Besides the lighting and smoking of cigarettes, it is merely dialogue between these two characters. Their conversation meanders from pleasantries towards the crux of the film: Bobby Sands is resolved to stage a hunger strike.
McQueen expertly weaves the strike, along with Sands’ justification for it, into the narrative. Thematically, it depicts the concept of integrity – doing what you think is right regardless of the consequences. In that sense, Hunger reminds us that though we may condemn the actions of ideological enemies, it is important to remember that their convictions originate from ideas. And, in seeking to abolish the worst ideas from legitimate discourse, we must take care not to plunge ourselves to worse depths by depriving their champions of humanity.