Names and Faces
by Caroline McKenzie

Dir. Steve McQueen, U.K., IFC Films

The bathing of bloodied knuckles in a small sink opens the film Hunger, the debut feature by British video artist Steve McQueen. As the owner of these knuckles silently proceeds through his daily rituals, the film offers no suggestions of who this person may be or why there’s blood on his hands. The stillness and lack of emotion in this sequence betray a strong feeling of unease, even before the man drops to his knees to look under his automobile for a car bomb. It’s still not until a subsequent shot of this man closing his work locker with a Union Jack keychain in hand that the audience might even surmise this person to be a Loyalist prison guard in Northern Ireland. But much before this reveal, this rigorous, mostly silent presentation of daily events casually mixed with evidence of brutality has already created a disquieting atmosphere.

It’s not entirely surprising that director McQueen has chosen to open his film about Bobby Sands’s 1981 hunger strike in the Maze prison by promoting audience identification with a Loyalist guard. McQueen has admitted that his interest in the strike stemmed from his remembrance of watching the news as a preteen in London in the early Eighties and seeing an image of Sands’s face on TV every evening. It’s also not surprising then that McQueen’s film feels strongly indebted to Britain and Ireland’s broadcast censorship policies, specifically designed to keep the IRA out of the media; this began in Ireland in 1971 with Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, and became official policy in the UK with the British Broadcasting Ban in 1988. Both official policies forbade anyone related to Sinn Féin or the IRA from speaking on broadcast media, and throughout the Eighties state-sponsored television channels in the UK routinely censored or canceled documentary stories on the Troubles. This was further compounded by the fact that Northern Irish civilians routinely refused to speak to the media for fear of retribution from either side, creating a dearth of Republican voices on the Irish and British airwaves. McQueen’s film seems both a reaction to and a reaffirmation of the censorship policy in the UK: he tells the story of the hunger strike almost entirely through strong, evocative visuals, but in doing so, he continues to deny these Irish historical figures access to language (with one notable exception), favoring extradiegetic archival sound bites of British politicians to the voices of his characters. As a result, his depiction of the strike identifies with Loyalist and British views by strongly affecting viewers’ emotions without allowing for any political dialogue.

McQueen shows something of a refusal to engage with his subject’s considerable cultural and political import. The title itself, Hunger, predicates a privileging of the emotional over the political—notably, the film wasn’t called Strike. McQueen seems content enough to use Sands’s protracted death as a sounding board for poetic musings on the nature of freedom and death, without conferring any legitimacy on Sands’s life or his legacy in UK politics, which raises the question of what responsibilities McQueen has to his subject in portraying him.

Less questionable is the narrative economy of the film’s first act. Much of the early praise for Hunger has centered around the near total absence of dialogue in much of the film, which is sharply punctuated by a 17-minute single take of a conversation between Sands and a priest, in which Sands is accused of attempted martyrdom. It’s not really the lack of dialogue that makes the first act so powerful, however, but how well McQueen conveys emotion through his use of color and light. In depicting an event to which Britons were systematically denied a window, McQueen has rendered emotions so visually palpable that his film doesn’t seem to require words. This is best expressed in a scene where the Republican prisoners on the “blanket protest” are offered civilian clothing by the guards for the first time. By displaying a line-up of checkered pants and dandelion-yellow shirts that appear even more ridiculous against the drab greens and grays of the prison walls, rendering the prisoners as clownish to the amusement of the guards, McQueen conveys tension and contempt merely through color. However, the scene’s emotional palpability and visual economy merely cover up what is a gross historical flattening—in actuality the prisoners’ rage at the “civilian clothes” the Maze officials brought in from Marks & Spencer stemmed from the fact that they were still denied their own clothing, after they were explicitly told that they would be allowed this concession. Though in terms of visual storytelling and narrative economy, the scene is quite brilliant, McQueen here renders the issue an emotional one instead of a political one, when political status is the crux of the prisoners’ protest.

Many other sequences receive similarly concise emotional and aesthetic treatment. A simple image of a prisoner’s hand delicately following an insect that scurries around a cell’s window grating (recalling the image of the fly in the hospital jar in Kieslowski’s Decalogue II) carries obvious symbolic weight; a wide-angle shot of a prison hallway with puddles of urine seeping out from under the doors in synchronized swells equally conveys slow-burning hopelessness. McQueen even stylizes shots of the feces smeared all over the walls of the barracks, showing the inmate Davey (Brian Milligan) drawing hypnotic concentric circles with his own waste. The formalism of these images is so thoughtfully rigid that such grotesqueries register as contemplative and strangely beautiful.

This assured composure persists even in some of the film’s most unsparing sequences, which depict the ritualized brutalization of the prisoners by the guards. But while prisoners are beaten with metal batons and shoved nose-first into the cement walls of the Maze, McQueen refrains from turning Hunger into an exhibition of atrocities; there are no quick close-ups of horrific bodily mutilations, and there is no rapid-fire editing or cutting to reaction shots. Instead the beatings persist, often in long shots, for such lengths of time as to feel entirely inescapable. The transfixing sense of restraint and rigidity Hunger retains clearly recalls Alan Clarke’s Elephant—which wordlessly presented a procession of murders in Belfast—in its mix of detachment and emotional investment. But whereas Clarke’s film consciously riffed on televisual representations of the Troubles in order to place the onus on Britain for the landscape of deprivation and despair in Belfast that led to these horrific events (and then broadcast these images back to the British mainland through its scheduled debut on the BBC), McQueen duplicates state censorship by denying the viewer any way to interpret these images except through emotional response. This decision becomes increasingly problematic when Bobby Sands is introduced into the film’s narrative.

hunger2.jpgThough the film’s first act focuses on two fictionalized Republican cellmates, Davey and Gerard (Liam McMahon), who go through their daily routines on the “no wash” and “blanket” protests mostly without major occurrence (ritualized beatings aside), Hunger abruptly shifts focus halfway through to a portrayal of Irish Republican hero Sands. This change to an actual historical figure whose name, let alone image, carries significant cultural weight problematizes the intentions of the film. An atmosphere of detachment and monotony no longer seem valid when we’re in the presence of a figure whose image, personality, actions, and words were under constant scrutiny by the world. This slippage is evident as soon as Michael Fassbender appears on screen in the role. Sands—whose visage is present all over Belfast, and who’s thought of as a gentle and unifying figure for his affectingly simplistic poetry, his immortal smile and Jesus-like locks of hair, and his self-abjection through hunger striking—is portrayed by Fassbender as a young Irish stud with taut muscles and freshly shorn, spiky red hair. He is also portrayed as a solitary figure, rarely interacting with anyone except for in the one exalted long-take where he engages in a (mostly fictionalized) conversation with a priest (Liam Cunningham). In actuality, Sands was a much-loved leader and organizer in the Maze resistance movement; this is partly why nine men willingly followed him in slowly killing themselves. While McQueen is free to portray Sands in whatever light he desires, the film here switches from representing the previously unforeseen (the protests inside the Maze) to portraying a subject that is defined by a specific iconography. The power of the film’s images are, in this case, not able to supersede public memory of the man as he was.

Sands’s strike in Hunger is not so much introduced by explanation or exposition, but is instead brought into the plot by a Margaret Thatcher voiceover decrying it as a shallow plea for Britain’s sympathy rather than either a valid political argument or a brave nonviolent protest; thus McQueen’s film, perhaps inadvertently, allies itself with the Iron Lady’s viewpoint by eschewing all political dialogue surrounding the strike. McQueen refuses to reveal, until a footnote before the credits roll, that Bobby Sands was an elected member of Parliament, voted in by a constituency of 30,000 Northern Irish voters. This fact is the very reason that the hunger strike was so important—Sands was both the political and symbolic representation of the Northern Irish Catholic community, and the British were denying their political legitimacy and allowing them to die. Decontextualizing the hunger strikes by removing this crucial information threatens to reinforce the outmoded, racist British idea that the Troubles are largely incomprehensible and the result of an atavistic tendency towards violence and disruption inherent to the Irish. Without the political context, the strikes are just a horrific series of photos of ten men wasting away in prison cots—exactly as Thatcher claimed.

This leaves the question of why McQueen even bothers bringing Bobby Sands into the film: if he has denied Sands both his political stance and his persona, what is left of the man? There is nothing to the character in Hunger that McQueen has labeled as “Bobby Sands” that really relates to the actual historical figure, other than the fact that both die of hunger. Instead of giving credence to Sands’s historical legacy, McQueen uses that 20-minute single take to endow his version of Sands with a mythical backstory of sorts: Sands tells the priest about how, as a child, he and his running teammates found a dying fawn in a stream, and he was the one to submerge the fawn’s head in the water to kill it. McQueen then breaks with the austerity and reserve of the first half of the film and begins to insert flashbacks and sequences of Sands as a child. Unnecessary dissolves to crows flying from dead treetops and cutaways to visual compositions that borrow liberally from Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner form the dominant aesthetic of the film’s final third. Gone is the rigorous austerity of the film’s first movement; these flashbacks rely on close-ups of running shoes and characters in profile, typically backlit by flares of sunlight. The dichotomy formed here between freedom (running in the woods) and confinement (dying in a prison) is surprisingly literal and fairly simple-minded.

In a final scene in the prison hospital, the camera traces a crack that extends down the wall of Sands’s hospital room—one of the few things he has to stare at as he wastes away in bed. The hypnotic and geometric monotony of the crack is powerful enough to sustain our emotional investment, but here McQueen’s camera follows the crack down from the ceiling to reveal the dreary face of a young Bobby Sands standing against the wall, staring at his dying older self. This literalizing and externalization of character psychology comes across as disingenuous in contrast to the film’s earlier restrained realism. The film cannot uphold the radical formal structure of its first half, and this seems ultimately a fitting end to a work that chooses a most controversial event for its subject, but refuses to engage with this historical tragedy beyond using it as a vehicle for apolitical philosophizing.