I rented this almost out of obligation — oh, critical acclaim, some kind of prominent artist behind it all, the Troubles, Bobby Sands. Yes, sure, sounds good for me, let’s scan through it quickly. But I found this film astonishing, powerful and beautiful and brutal and unexpected in its force and aesthetics. I can’t recommend it more highly.

And, yes, it is about the group of Irish prisoners leading the blanket [no uniforms accepted, prisoners naked but for woolen blankets] and dirty [urine spilled into the halls, shit smeared all over the walls] protests, demanding political status from Thatcher’s government, and about Bobby Sands, more centrally, deciding upon a hunger strike and then slowly, painfully whittled away. But Steve McQueen’s focus is on the body, as a complex site of political and aesthetic will. The film opens obliquely, a man going through his morning ablutions, particularly a strange slow ritual of soaking his hands, knuckles up, in a washbasin. We realize, quite a bit later, that he’s a guard for the British prison–McQueen keeps attuned to his face, to the putting on of clothes, to the soaking hands, to a cigarette taken in the snow. Some long, suspenseful time passes before this man’s specific interaction with the prisoners is revealed–and by the time we see what he does, we’ve already been immersed in a precise delineation of what his doing does to him.

Then the film shifts focus to a cell, and two prisoners — and we get more dialogue, a clearer sense of the narrative frame (the political battles, especially), but still the film centers on these bodies: stripped before guards, huddling in woolen cloth, shaggy and dirty then forcibly shaven and bathed, beaten, smearing feces all over the walls, nibbling at crusts, hands digging through piles of maggots and offal to conceal messages, masturbating….

And only some while later does the film ‘find’ Sands (a remarkable Michael Fassbender), who emerges from the crowd of background prisoners, slowly taking his own arguments and personal story to center stage. There is an amazing, fixed-camera debate between Sands and a sympathetic priest that provides so much of that political context yet so much more, too, and after many minutes, many cigarettes smoked, the camera shifts position to frame Sands, telling a story.

I feared yet another romanticized portrait of brutalized men, deciding to “own” their own bodies . . . but McQueen’s vision manages to find both the beauty of all these bodies yet never to gloss the brutality. Sands has a point but isn’t a saint, and the early focus on the guard (and subsequent attention to him and various colleagues’ reactions) dismantles the demonization so frequent in narratives of the Troubles.

I’d love to hear what people thought of this.

7 thoughts on “Hunger

  1. i remember another movie, also supposedly about unspeakable violence taking place in other times/other places, making me feel this, which is: this is nothing compared to what we do NOW. we: the us of a. do: the violence we practice. now: post 9/11.

    in an interview mcqueen, a black man, is asked whether the images of this film have anything to do with other, more recent images — abu ghraib, guantánamo. he replies, duh, then comments on the fact that, guess what, these are white bodies, this was happening “in our own backyard.”

    but maybe england could practice this backyard, white-on-white abuse and violence because it had so much damn fucking practice massacring brown bodies all over the planet.

    in fact, the violence in this film, cringe-making as it is, pales (pales) in comparison to the ravaging violence of abu ghraib, guantánamo, and the war on turrur. nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the meticulously shot, silent, tender scenes in which a middle-aged orderly looks after a dying bobby sands in a pristine hospital room inside the prison. after the violence of the pre-hunger-strike scenes, the tenderness and attention lent to bobby’s body are mind-boggling. a nurse soothes his skin sores with unguent she spreads with a naked finger. sheep’s skin is laid on his bed to help with horrible bed sores. a tunnel-shaped wire mesh is laid over bobby’s body so the sheets won’t chafe his hyper-sensitive skin. a scene in which the kindly orderly is replaced by a less kindly one while a wasted bobby is lying in the bath, and the less kindly guy makes bobby get out of the bath on his own and consequently pass out, is more shocking than all the beating scenes of the first part of the movie.

    can we imagine any of this attention being lavished on the brown bodies of hunger-striking guantánamo detainees, the brown bodies of south african freedom fighters, the brown bodies of abu ghraib? does the iconography of these struggles permit us to imagine this kind of semi-reverent attention lent to the needs of an injured, pained, dying brown body? not in a million years.

    this film is visually stunning and amazingly paced — long long scenes in which nothing happens except the washing down of a piss-strewn corridor, the soaking of hurt knuckles, the smoking of a cigarette in the snow. less long, maybe, scenes in which flailing bodies are dragged to places they don’t want to go and made to do things they don’t want to do. a central, incredibly long scene in which bobby and a priest discuss the merits of dying for a cause.

    yet, i feel, the pace and artistry are never at the service of empty aesthetics. the long, quiet moments in which almost nothing happens slow down the frenzy of violence and make us reflect on the terrible human toll violence takes on everyone, the perpetrators, the victims, the bystanders. even the honcho prison guard’s senile mother ends up soaked in blood. can violence reach more deeply inside the inner recesses of society?

    i’m really just repeating in (barely) other words what mike said in his lovely review. good film.

  2. Great reviews, both of you. Just want to add, that many might argue that Britain was only able to handle brown bodies at it did because of years of mistreating the Irish previously. The horrible violence of occupation goes back at least to the 17th century. And before that, centuries of brutal war there. Ireland might be ground zero for Western colonialism and brutality.

    But point taken: today (even 1981) Ireland is white and civilized. And we’ve gone on to other places and peoples to practice the ultimate in brutality.

  3. I would have thought brutality is brutality whether practiced on brown bodies or white bodies. I am not quite sure why violence practiced on Irish people would pale compared to violence practiced on “brown” people, unless of course, many years of racialized rhetoric has now made it possible to overlook violence against white people, because, after all, they’re just white and don’t any longer have that anti-colonialist zing to them.

  4. by the way, a close look at Errol Morris’ excellent documentary Standard Operating Procedure indicates that the activities at Abu Ghraib were characterized less by overt violence than by a weird psychosexual desire to humiliate the prisoners. Did we discuss that film somewhere?

  5. michael, what i found was that the brutality depicted in this film was less brutal than the brutality i have come to associate with abu ghraib, guantánamo, and south africa, so i only meant that paling in a quantitative sense, kinda.

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