DVD Review: Hunger

Hunger Pack Shot

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Despite wanting to see this film at the cinema I only just managed to watch its TV premier on Channel4 recently (15th December 2009).

A stark, near monochrome telling of the lead up to and hunger strike of Booby Sands in Northern Ireland 1981 – I was not surprised to find out that its director Steve McQueen is an artist.  There is a kind of dark beauty that haunts this film. McQueen is related to Michael Collins on his mother’s side and as a co-writer there is – obviously – a strong pro- republican stance. There isn’t much sympathy or viewpoint from the Loyalist position – the prison guards (one with UDA on his knuckles) are cold and brutal – and there isn’t a great deal of “politics”. One scene where Sands and a priest talk together unravels why Sands is dedicated to going on hunger strike; the conversation contrast two possible directions (at that time) of the Irish Republican movement.  The priest seems to favour (or has been asked to put forward) negotiation between prisoners and governor. Sands then tells a (very vivid) childhood recollection. This story is most illuminating. Sands was a cross-country runner and he and his fellows from Belfast go to a competition where there are boys from the south. Interestingly he thinks of this as an “international” event (should he?) and there is a strong sense of loyalty to BELFAST (the boys are both Protestant and Catholic). Because the stream and woods are out-of-bounds the Belfast boys can’t resist exploring. They find a young foal dying in the stream. There is a lot of talk about what to do. Sands realises that none of the boys are actually going to DO anything and rather than waste time prattling on he takes action and drowns the suffering animal. He is a doer not a talker. And he takes the rap for this on BEHALF of all the rest (a priest sees him drown the foal as if an act of cruelty).This tale is projected to the present where the priest represents those willing to talk but not advancing the cause (in Sands’ eyes) or him and his fellow prisoners who are prepared to die for that cause. There is of course a discussion on whether this will be “suicide” or not – and this debate extended in reality to the hunger strikers families wishing to have cause of death changed from “self-imposed starvation” to “starvation”.

There’s real VISCOSITY in this film – things hidden up rectums, nostrils, in mouths…the “blanket” protests (prisoners refusing to wear prison uniforms) to the “dirty” protests, where prisoners refused to wash and smeared their cells with excreta (SHIT!). One scene is rhythmic and unceasing as a guard methodically sweeps up the urine the prisoners pour under their cell doors.

There is also a real sense of death. Death unfolds and is recorded slowly and with such detail that I was brought back to my own experience of the death of friends and loved ones. Right back and so intensely it was both moving and brutal. Death is not sentimentalised here nor the body’s slow and unceasing degeneration.

What does this film tell us? What do we learn? Well, if the treatment of the prisoners is accurate (and please comment below this review and let me and others know) then I am partly ashamed to be British. I’m not an apologist for the IRA here – and though the evidence for Sands’ conviction seems light (from what I’ve subsequently read) we MUST always remember the boys and girls slaughtered by the IRA and the horrific torture meted out by them. But brutalising prisoners in this fashion – despite the provocation of the filthy cells – is inexcusable. Firstly, should the prisoners have retained their “special category status”? Were they simple “criminals” as described by Margaret Thatcher – or political prisoners? Secondly – should their imprisonment have been totally different – not in Long Kesh (the Maze) at all? Does brutalising prisoners have the OPPOSITE effect of its intention – thus, rather than bend their will it hardens it? Certainly the IRA gained more members and sympathy following the death of Sands’ and nine others. Also, the prisoners’ demands were eventually met – though not “officially”.

What does the film tell us about loyalty, the will to sacrifice or be martyred? What does it tell us about where we go from here? Interesting that the years 1981 (hunger strike) and the deaths from the “troubles” since 1969 appear on the screen. These twelve years seem to cover different worlds and ideologies in a way that no others could post WW2. The sixties with their change, rebellion, youth culture (and ordinariness for many) to the new-romantic, post-punk, new wave – dare I say – blander 80s.
Bobby sands’ was elected to the British Parliament – he never took his seat and died 25 days after his election. Now we have former IRA men in Sinn Fein talking and negotiating not only with the British Government but with the DUP. How things have changed – though Northern Ireland remains – in my opinion – a potential powder keg. This film shows in a subtle (yes!) way the TRUE brutality of a dirty war – a civil war, a religious war – a fight between men who look the same but can easily discern their difference; the fear, violence, sense of hatred that can only be experienced by the “so very nearly” alike. My God but it seems that importing people from one country and culture and/or religion to another in any large number is and will remain a very great threat to peace and stability – unless there is full integration.
What is the hope? Let’s not be patronising and talk of one world, one love, one people…maybe that’s only for the spirit or pop world. We’re talking here of such ingrained senses of loyalty and history and tradition that only something slow and organically changed can offer salvation and eventual redemption. My own ideas – as an outsider – is for Ulster to be the focus of loyalty – neither London nor Dublin. That Catholic or Protestant alike will see themselves firstly as Ulstermen and of a differing background only secondly. With education and slowly gaining trust and separation from Britain and Ireland (though within the EU) would it not be possible for this new, small nation – Ulster – to be born? Again I ask for those with more knowledge to comment.

So, you can see, I was moved by this film. Moved by the determination within a most ungodly and uncivilised situation. But the determination didn’t seem quite fully civilised. Somehow – perhaps its very nature – didn’t allow it to be completely upbeat, civilised and fully moral. I felt both depressed and invigorated afterwards – I really wanted to stay up and write! (I didn’t…) I wonder though what a Loyalist might think of this film – and is that the abiding dichotomy; that there will always be two points of view? My cynicism is such that I don’t ever expect there to be a film celebrating the Loyalist position or the British Army’s either (remember the soldiers cornered during a Republican funeral who refused to fire their pistols and were beaten to death?). When all the stories are told and when people CAN lay the ghosts of the past where they belong then – and only then – might new stories be forged. I hope so. It would be easy to see parallels in Northern Ireland with modern Britain and other “civilised” countries. At least for now we have peace. And peace is what I wish. Peace isn’t wishy-washy – and those of you (as me) who have experienced violence know that it IS the only way. Civil unrest and Civil War are to be avoided at all costs – and even then the momentum to war might be unstoppable. There have been too many lives lost. We HAVE to keep talking…

Reviewed by Tim Bragg


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