I’ve been waiting to see Steve McQueen’s Hunger for nearly a year. From everything I read about the movie, I knew that it would be the kind of movie I love more than any other. But that also means that it would be the kind of film that never gets wide distribution and that very few people will have the opportunity to see, much less want to see. Why? Because it’s a film more interested in creating an aura than telling a narrative story full of character and plot development. Sure, Hunger is about very real historical events – British dominance, the Irish Republican Army, and the Bobby Sands hunger strike – but it presents them in a way that isn’t remotely mainstream. In a sense, the film is as avant-garde and rebellious in its style as the Maze prisoners protests were in their actions.
I finally had an opportunity to see the film this week and was absolutely blown away. Hunger is a magnificent work, one that deserves every accolade it has received. From the very opening shot and strains of music to the final closing credits, every inch of this film is art that packs a punch. Though based on real historical and political events, it transposes these real exceptionally politically charged events into an abstract meditation on fascistic domination and rebellious protest that transcends political specificity while also maintaining its historical authenticity. The film is extremely political without ever reducing itself to a cut-and-dried message. It achieves this nuanced bridge between abstraction and historical documentation by exploiting the medium of film to show us the circumstances of the specific historical time rather than telling us the overt story and polemicizing. Relying on the tools of form – sound design, cinematography, and lighting – rather than character development and plot, the film delivers the abstract feel of the time and place in which it is set and creates an avant-garde cinematic space carved out of specific events.
The amazing thing is that the film ends up being even more real in its abstraction than a straight political-historical drama would have been. It’s more real because it gives us the gut level human impression of the circumstances. We are asked to feel the situation on screen through our senses rather than just passively being told a story. McQueen distills the environment into a sensory poem that operates on a much more experiential visceral level than direct narrative, and we are immersed into the Maze prison with every sensory core of our being, thereby giving us the opportunity to experience all oppressive prisons.
Certainly the movie’s revolutionary approach to a revolutionary story is connected to the fact that Steve McQueen is an artist first. He happens to use film as his medium, but not in the way an insider in the movie industry would have. At the time of the Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, McQueen was 11-12 years old, and Sands was an enigmatic figure in his life who dominated the television screen and the newsstands. Because of the power of the specter of Bobby Sands in McQueen’s own life, his film concentrates on the subjective impression of the historical events’ aura rather than their journalistic story. Sure, McQueen did a ton of research on the actual events and incorporated those historical facts into the film, but it’s because they get filtered through his specific personal vision that the picture is so profoundly powerful.
Whether a conscious move or not, McQueen’s framing of the story in relation to a critical moment in Bobby Sands’ own adolescent life seems to connect it to the intense impression Sands had on McQueen when he was an adolescent. Bobby’s character is ultimately defined by an incident in which he killed a faun by drowning it and therefore put the animal out of its misery. This was a violent act of sacrifice and mercy just like the act that Sands ultimately will perform on his own body. Certainly this adolescent incident centered on a moment of sacrifice is all the more beautifully charged and poignant since it reflects the time in McQueen’s own adolescent life when the image of Sands was ever-present. Experiencing that kind of bodily protest through the medium of mass culture must have been profoundly meaningful for an adolescent boy confronting the conflicts that came with growing into his own body. Ultimately, it is this dimension to the film, its saturation by the tension between body and mind, hunger and the will to transcend it, that make the film so much more than a simple political story. When Bobby Sands dies at the end of the film and follows the vision of his adolescent self into the woods, in a way we are also following McQueen into his vision. When Bobby Sands looks at us over his shoulder, Steve McQueen also is looking at us through his eyes.
Hunger is a film about the body and how it can be a tool for protest. On the most immediate level, Bobby Sands uses his body as the ultimate form of protest, literally starving himself to death to protest oppression. But in addition to the final starvation sequence, the film focuses on the body throughout, from the bloody knuckles of the violent prison guard to the hair being sheared from the prisoners’ scalps, to feces and piss, to naked bodies engaging in the “blanket” protest. In fact, the hunger strike itself was the final act of the rebels’ bodies. Prior to that, they used their naked bodies, their shit, and their piss to rebel. Whether the viewer knows the specific facts of the protests is ultimately not that important, because McQueen turns them into elements of a language that goes beyond the historical to create an abstract visual poem.
The first thirty minutes of the film have barely any discernable dialogue. What we see are a number of intense moments that focus on the brutality of the body. For example, in one of the early scenes, an inmate is dragged into the prison, screaming that he refuses to wear the clothes of a prisoner. That is the extent of the dialogue. The remainder of the scene is played out in long suspended silence as the prisoner slowly strips down naked as three prison guards look on. The sense of tension and violation is extreme as he slowly unclothes himself and his body is exposed in its nakedness. As he’s dragged into his cell, the camera briefly lingers on a bloody gash in the side of this head and stream of blood running down his face, completing the vision of violation. Through his eyes, we see excrement smeared on prison walls into art, urine dumped into the halls, naked men refusing to bathe, shave, or clothe themselves. None of this is explained or commented on. It is delivered purely through image, sound, and music with minimal dialogue or explanation. The end result is a massively intense portrait of the horrors of oppression playing against the strength of the human will to protest through the most intimate parts of our humanity – our bodies – even while those parts are being violated. In one particularly effective scene toward the end of the film, a prison guard slowly works his way down the hall sweeping up the prisoners’ piss. The only sounds in the scene are the broom scraping the ground and the sloshing of the liquid as he traipses through it in his rubber boots. He is literally trying to contain the leaking bodies of the protesters, but there will always be more piss to replace what he mops up. You can try to sweep the evidence of brutality and oppression into the drain, but more will leak out. Covered with blood, shit and piss, the prison becomes the symbol of the imprisoned body itself.
The struggle to hide the evidence of brutality is also reflected in an incredible and eerie tension in the film between violence and sterility in the prison. For example, when they clean the shit off the walls and suddenly the prison is totally clean and sterile, in a way the prison is even more disturbing than the maggot, shit, and piss-infested prison of the earlier scenes. At least the horror of the prison is overt when the walls are smeared with feces. Hiding the horror by presenting it in a sterile tidy package is very unsettling. This tension also plays out in the central and brutally disturbing beating scene when all the cops in their riot gear organize themselves in the halls. Everything seems to be about systems and order as the cops line up in their uniforms with their shields in a neat line, but then the prisoners are released to a vile beating by the cops. The only sound in the scene is the cacophony of police batons beating bullet proof shields and prisoners’ bodies. It is a brilliant portrait of the violence and chaos masked by the veneer of order and law. These scenes and the tension between sterility and brutality, order and chaos, linger as we enter the final third of the film and experience the death of Bobby Sands, which is shown as a ritual of maintaining order. His body brutalized and physically deteriorating from starvation, we see his gaping wounds, bloody sores, cracked lips, and emaciated form. Yet the very system that is the cause of his protest lovingly nurtures his death. The prison doctors cater to his death in the sterile environment of his room while Bobby’s body literalizes the violence of the system that is caring for him in his death.
A beautifully disturbing way in which the film manipulates these kinds of tensions is in relation to the violent prison guard who gets his jollies beating the prisoners. The film opens with a pair of a man’s hands, a pink bar of soap, and a sink. We see the hands wash themselves, button a shirt, open a newspaper, eat a plate of food. Eventually the camera pulls back, and we see a man getting ready for work. He walks out the door, looks down the street each way, pauses at his car, kneels on the ground, and looks under the chassis. At this point, we understand that he is checking for a bomb, and it is amazing how much tension has been created through this sequence of actions. When he puts the key in the ignition, we are on the edge of our seats waiting for the explosion. When the car doesn’t blow up, we actually breathe a sigh of relief.
The camera then cuts to another scene of the hands in a sink. This time the knuckles are bleeding, and the water in the sink is pooling pink with blood. This mirrors the opening scene, and we realize that these are the knuckles of a violent man. Eventually we witness the extent of his violence as he violently beats Bobby Sands and other prisoners. We slowly learn that this guy is a truly sadistic fascistic fucked up asshole, a representative of everything violent, oppressive, discriminatory, and wrong with the British government or any other oppressive imperialist system. By the time the film gets to the scene where the prison guard is assassinated while visiting his mother in a nursing home, we again experience relief in relation to this character. However, this time our relief comes from the fact that he is blown to bits. After he has been shot in the head and his blood is splattered all over his catatonic mother with his dead head in her lap, we experience a sense of victory and relief at this truly horrific scene. We’re relieved that he is killed but also relieved to have the violence so viscerally brought to the surface at the expense of the guard’s body. This scene totally turns the tables on our reaction to that opening scene. On a side note, this scene masterfully segues into the scenes with Bobby Sands’ mother going to the prison to be with him through his death. This kind of interior reflection and manipulation is evidence of McQueen’s incredibly well crafted filmmaking.
Even though the film relies almost entirely on abstraction – sound, image, lighting – to deliver its story, it has one very long dialogue scene in the middle between Bobby Sands and a priest. The camera literally comes to a halt, letting us concentrate fully on a twenty-two minutes conversation/debate between Bobby and the priest. The film uses this scene to insert the political and historical back story and to give substance to Bobby Sands’ character. Interestingly, McQueen still manages to maintain an abstract distance from the material even while relying solely on dialogue. In a way, the scene is avant-garde in its own right since the way it abruptly inserts itself into the image and soundscape that precedes it seems equally extreme in its delivery. We go from one extreme – image movement with no dialogue – to another – stasis with excessive dialogue. This scene also sets up Bobby Sands as a kind of martyr/saint/Jesus figure, connecting him with the image that haunted Steve McQueen’s adolescence. Overall, Sands seems more of an apparition than a real person, yet is solidly grounded during the scene with the priest.
Every single image in this film is meticulously constructed, from a bar of soap, to a cigarette rolled with pages of the bible, to a flickering fluorescent light. While the film tells a very specific story – the story of Bobby Sands and the protests inside the Maze prison from the mid-1970s to 1981 – the way the film is put together makes it an abstract representation of all political oppression and fascistic systems of law and order and of those who dare protest those systems. Though politically and historically specific, the film’s abstract artistic approach distills these specific political events into a commentary on fascistic brutality and the protest against it that is not limited to the specific historic moment it represents. Reduced to a network of symbols, sounds, and atmosphere, the horrific state of the Maze prison could easily be transposed into Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or any other “containment” facility in which the maintenance of order is inseparable from the extreme violence that is performed in its name. Though Hunger tells a story that’s thirty years old, it could just as easily be a story from yesterday or tomorrow.
When I first saw Hunger, I was so overwhelmed by its brilliance that I actually felt too intimidated to write about it. I questioned how my words could ever do this film justice. But then I thought that the real injustice would be not to write about it, especially since so few people will have the opportunity to see it in a movie theater. Because McQueen’s cinematic masterpiece doesn’t fall into the traps of trying to capture history literally or of using history as a means of polemicizing, it communicates a message that will remain relevant as long as it sticks in viewers’ minds. I know it will stick in mine forever.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.