HUNGER (2008)



(director/writer: Steve McQueen; screenwriter: Enda Walsh; cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt; editor: Joe Walker; music: David Holmes/Leo Abrahams; cast: Michael Fassbender (Bobby Sands), Brian Milligan (Davey Gillen), Stuart Graham (Ray Lohan), Liam Cunningham (Father Moran), Larry Cowan (Prison Guard), Dennis McCambridge (Beaten Prisoner), Helena Bereen (Ray’s mother), Liam McMahon (Gerry), Lalor Roddy (William), Laine Megaw (Mrs. Lohan), Rory Mullen (Priest), Stuart Graham (Prison Warden); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Laura Hastings-Smith/Robin Gutch; IFC Films; 2008-UK)

“An unconventional biopic that tells in an aesthetic no-holds-barred way the harrowing story of Irish Republican Army activist Bobby Sands.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The debut feature film from the 39-year-old noted British visual-artist Steve McQueen, whose 1999 video piece inspired by Buster Keaton made him a Turner Prize-winner. Hunger is an unconventional biopic that tells in an aesthetic no-holds-barred way the harrowing story of Irish Republican Army activist Bobby Sands, who died on a hunger strike over the course of 66 days in 1981 in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland as a protest against the horrible prison conditions (he presented five demands which he died for, but the filmmaker neglected to let the viewer know those demands in full). You can get the info in a Google search. Sands was imprisoned for the possession of firearms and sentenced to twelve years. The following are the IRA demands: “the right not to wear a prison uniform; no prison work; free association with other prisoners, including organizing educational and recreational pursuits; one visit, one letter and one parcel per week; and full restoration of remission lost through prison protests.”

What we do realize, is that radical prison leader Sands’ extreme action for the cause might be nutso but also might be courageous and principled nutso. In any case, his commitment to the cause inspired nine other IRA prisoners to follow suit with their own fatally torturous hunger strikes. Under British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s hardline tactics to the Irish problem, the convicted IRA members were not recognized as political prisoners but treated as criminals.

McQueen and cowriter Enda Walsh, the playwright, do not side with Sands or the Brits, preferring to remain neutral; what they do instead is induce us to compare the freedom loving politically idealistic Sands’ death quest to Christ’s martyrdom of suffering, as he slowly degenerates and undergoes extreme physical degradation while enduring in a cell covered with excrement. It’s a grim film that’s technically and artistically mind-blowing perfect and though emotionally difficult to digest is nevertheless intellectually stimulating, even if it’s difficult to enjoy. It makes for a gruesome watch that puts you inside the prison and makes you feel as much like a prisoner as perhaps any film can make you. But if you can handle such a cinema verité of prison life ordeal, there’s something enlightening and intangible to gain from this grueling death watch scenario–one that veers from the horrific to the sublime as easily as it veers from life to death.

In the opening scene Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) is a new inmate in “H” block (where the IRA inmates are held), in the infamous Maze prison in County Down. When Davey tells the admitting guards at the reception center he wants to wear his civilian clothes and not a prison uniform because he’s a political prisoner and not a criminal, he is severely beaten for his protest. Davey shares a cell with fellow IRA activist Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon), a survivor who is adept at smuggling messages written on cigarette papers out of the prison.

After we observe the rigors of daily routine prison life for a number of inmates, that include regular beatings with clubs by the beastly guards (who are also depicted as vics since many were killed and all have a constant fear of being snuffed out in the outside by the prisoner’s IRA cronies), urine poured in the prison cell hallway passages by the protesting prisoners, and the unique way of the smuggling of radio equipment. At about the halfway point, we come to the story of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) when guards drag him from his cell and violently force him to have his hair cut and be washed by them.

The film’s main intellectual piece is an engaging 20-minute conversation in the prison visiting room between the curt Bobby Sands and the sympathetic young Father Moran (Liam Cunningham), who tries to convince the radical to give up on his hunger strike which he calls an egotistical suicide attempt by a crazed man. Sands, on the other hand, explains his reasons for the strike without backing down. In the course of their chat they share their different philosophies and religious beliefs, and despite the Roman Catholic priest’s differences with Sands he respects his will to resist and willingness to die for a cause.

Sands in his final days deteriorates physically, but still remains zealously strong-willed in his belief that he’s a freedom fighter and doing the right thing.

Whatever you might think of how bizarrely and unpleasantly the pic plays out, one can’t help thinking how clear is the vision that relentlessly focuses on the intense suffering of the prisoners, the institutionalized brutality that also affects the guards who morph into the inmates they violate, and how the treatment of the IRA prisoners clearly violated basic human rights and international law. It certainly invites comparison to Abu Ghraib, where everyone involved in such atrocities became prisoners of their destiny and their illicit actions made democratic nations cringe at its secret fascistic actions.

It was winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes.