It has been estimated that 20 million people die from hunger each year. Some of these are the result of poverty. Some are the result of natural disasters such as famine. Some are the result of inhuman treatment. But some people die from hunger by choice. Bobbie Sands was one of those people.
The debut movie Hunger from Steve McQueen is an absolutely shocking, confronting depiction of the last 6 weeks of Bobbie Sands' (Michael Fassbender) hunger strike in the early 1980s. Bobbie was a Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) member who was incarcerated in the infamous Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. IRA prisoners would refuse to wear the prison uniform so would live naked except for a blanket. During Bobbie's imprisonment, the prisoners were also engaged in a no-wash protest and would smear their faeces over the walls with some painting with it.
Bobbie Sands was committed to the task of fighting for political prisoner status for IRA members and decided to express this commitment by going on a hunger strike. Eventually, he died for his cause.
Hunger opens with a prison guard, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), getting ready to leave home to go to work. After finishing his breakfast, he walks outside, checks his car for any dangers, looks up and down the street carefully, before getting in and driving to work. He arrives at work and he seems to distance himself from his colleagues and somehow appears different. But it is not long before Raymond descends into the same behaviour as his colleagues — brutalising, torturing, and humiliating the prisoners.
The story then shifts focus to Bobbie Sands as he is admitted to the prison, stripped of his clothes, and inhumanely treated day after day. Convinced of the righteousness of his cause, Bobbie decides to go on a hunger strike and we witness his deterioration until he dies.
Hunger is a highly disturbing look at the conditions and treatment experienced by Bobbie and his fellow inmates. But the film is superbly rendered. There is almost no dialogue — we just watch what happens with the natural sounds which, along with the confronting visuals, provokes deep responses in the viewer.
The brutality and humiliation of Hunger is almost too much to bear. Then, in the middle of the story, McQueen has a 20 minute single take (a claimed world record) where the camera just sits still while we witness a dialogue between Sands and his visiting priest. The priest tries to convince Bobbie not to go ahead with the strike but we listen to Bobbie's absolutely certain rationalisation of what he plans to do. This dialogue is a welcome relief after what we have had to witness and we begin to understand where Bobbie is coming from in his decision to give up life for his beliefs. But at the end of the dialogue, we are thrust back into the horror of Sands' journey to death.
Hunger does not really explore the political background that has led to the incarceration of these prisoners. Instead, McQueen has chosen to force us to just watch as humans abuse other humans. It tells the story of these prisoners from a perspective that is rare. A lot of movies have been made about the troubles in Ireland. But nothing like this one. Michael Fassbender is incredible as Bobbie Sands. According to one of the prisoners who is depicted in the film, Fassbender is 'frighteningly real'. Apparently, he went on a medically supervised diet for this role — he must have been on the very brink of serious illness and those around him were concerned for his welfare according to comments on the Internet Movie Databsase.
When Hunger was shown at Cannes, there were walkouts as well as standing ovations. This movie will not be for everyone. It is explicit in its brutality and watching it is like being punched in the guts over and over. It's a very dark story but significant. It is the story of a real human person who wasn't treated as one and, to see it from this perspective, made me appreciate the lengths to which someone will go in support of a cause they believe in — even to death. What makes it even more disturbing is the occasional overlay of the insensitive words that Margaret Thatcher spoke publicly in response to the prisoner's protest.
This is a brilliant film — but be warned: it is not easy to watch and it takes a level of courage to keep your eyes on the screen. It is an important moment in history that makes us appreciate the personal dimension of political conflict.
My Rating: **** (out of 5)