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Hunger Strike

Steve McQueen's masterpiece is the most audacious film of the year. Find out why this peek into a prison during The Troubles in Northern Ireland is a must see.


The secret about political films is that they only work when they are not about politics. That is to say, when they keep their political issues in the background, allowing them to be present without overpowering the human story that we are watching. It’s a secret Steve McQueen has obviously decoded. (This is not your father's Steve McQueen; this one was born a year after Bullitt came out.) McQueen's feature film debut, Hunger, is a political film that thrusts didacticism to the background, and chooses to tell its story in human terms instead.

McQueen is a British visual artist who has been making short-form video art for years, winning the Turner Prize in 1999. In his first narrative feature, this background is quite apparent. With the exception of a scene that is essentially a one-act play about halfway in, Hunger has little dialogue, and features plenty of virtuoso sequences of rhythmic, pulsating style that could stand on their own as avant-garde shorts. The film, which won the Camera d’Or (best first feature) at Cannes, revolves around the 1981 IRA prisoners’ hunger strike, led by Bobby Sands. However, instead of focusing on political speeches, rallies, protests, and other traditional means of telling a political story, McQueen has made a film about the bodies of his characters.

One cannot ignore the fact that the male body is a fetishized object in Hunger; the prisoners look to be dirty, downtrodden counterparts to male fashion models. All sinewy and chiseled out of stone, they are impossible not to stare at. Their bodies are not only fetish objects, but also the tools with which they attain political agency. Throughout the film, we see characters hide notes in their mouths; smear their excrement on the walls of their cells; refuse to wear prisoner uniforms; endure severe beatings by guards, a painful cavity search, and vicious dry-shaving; build dams to force their urine out of their cells; and even discreetly attempt to masturbate. And of course, we see one character, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender, who masterfully channels Sands’ determination without allowing him to seem insane) starve himself to death. McQueen understands that politics is not about politicians making speeches, it’s not about people walking around and waving signs, and it’s not even really about discussing political ideas.


The two moments where we hear Margaret Thatcher’s voice on the radio perfectly illuminate this notion, as hearing her talk about the politics of the situation stands in such marked contrast to the brutal reality facing Sands and the prisoners. How could simply talking about these things come anywhere near the visceral truth of the struggle of the IRA prisoners? At the core, politics is about action and physicality, doing things as opposed to talking about them. Hunger displays how political struggle is an elemental struggle, something inseparable from even our most base conditions as humans.

Therefore, to say that Hunger revolves around the politics of the hunger strike would be significantly misleading—it does, and it doesn’t. While Hunger will certainly be appreciated by those who are familiar with The Troubles—and those audience members may gain more out of the experience—the film’s reach is much broader. McQueen himself noted in a recent interview with Cineaste that the film is not a political film so much as it is a humanist one. However, the important point that he makes towards the end of the interview is that humanist cinema is political cinema, when done properly.


The film is riddled with intensely formal sequences that transfer the struggle of the IRA prisoners from a specific political context to a broader, humanist spectrum, one where fighting oppression is not limited by specific conflicts and boundaries, but rather made universal by its baseness. In one such sequence, a cavity search of prisoners becomes a formalist nightmare, a veritable bass-drum concerto, as a riot squad beats in unison on their shields with nightsticks before viciously beating the prisoners. This is a sequence that could relate to any struggle against oppression, not just this one.

Hunger was co-written by McQueen and Enda Walsh, an Irish playwright whose only previous film credit is Kirsten Sheridan’s Disco Pigs. One can imagine Walsh’s influence at work in the scene in the middle of the film that serves almost as a 22-minute one-act play. In the scene, Sands discusses the idea of the hunger strike with a priest, Father Moran (Liam Cunningham). Centered in a film with little dialogue and much physicality, this scene begins with a 17.5-minute take where, sitting completely still, the two men do nothing but talk. They joke, share some banter, and gradually move towards the discussion of the hunger strike Bobby is planning, about which they each have strong arguments, Moran against and Sands for.
McQueen shies away from editorializing, and there’s no question that he has empathy for all parties. While Hunger will no doubt have detractors who believe it exalts a terrorist, there is far too much left outside the scope of the film for this claim to hold up. Hunger is not interested in Bobby Sands’ past acts as an IRA member, nor is it particularly interested in Bobby Sands, period. Instead, the film is interested in the decisions and actions made and taken by Sands while he was in “The Maze” towards the end of his life, and if it deifies anything, it deifies his total commitment to his political cause.

McQueen is not judgmental; in Hunger, everyone is a victim, even the riot squad guards. In one of the film’s most harrowing shots, we have a split screen of riot guards beating a prisoner while one of the younger guards stands outside, crying and shaking. This is the kind of intelligence that puts Hunger in a league of its own. The film is a startlingly intricate work, filled with dualities and contradictions, evincing a complexity that is rarely found in contemporary cinema.

opens Friday, March 20, at the IFC Center in New York.

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