Monday, October 20, 2008

London Film Festival Day 6 - HUNGER

Debutant writer-director Steve McQueen has made one of the most austere, brutal films of the festival so far - an unshrinking depiction of the conditions inside the infamous Maze prison at the height of the Dirty Protests, and Bobby Sands' fatal hunger strike.

As the movie opens, we see a middle-aged man eat breakfast and then leave the house. He checks underneath his car, and we realise that he's a prison guard in fear of his life. It's 1981, and he works at the Maze prison just outside Belfast during the Troubles. The next forty minutes give us an unflinching depiction of dirty protests with little dialogue but a brilliant sound-track that captures every scrunch of a sweater and every thud of cudgel on riot shields. The Republican prisoners look like savages - long hair, unwashed, wearing a blanket or a towel at most, living on mattresses crawling in maggots, walls smeared in excrement, mouldering food heaped in the corners of their cells. Every now and then, the riot police are called in and the prisoners are taken out kicking and screaming for a forced bath while their cells are hosed down. You feel the desperation of men who believe that their only option is to dehumanise themselves, and pity for the prison guards who in brutalising the prisoners to keep order are also brutalising themselves.

What the prisoners are protesting is their right to Special Category Status. It's the old beef. They think they are freedom-fighters and political prisoners. Mrs Thatcher's government says that they are simply criminals and should be treated accordingly. There is a stand-off. Accordingly, at the mid-point of the film, Bobby Sands has a meeting with a priest and discusses his intention to start a second hunger strike. This scene is the heart of the film and is absolutely gripping. It's basically a single-take fixed camera shot with Sands and the priest facing each other across a table, sideways on to the audience. The two men establish a rapport and engage in a debate about what the strike could achieve and what the price of failure would be. Liam Cunningham's priest is quick-witted and brooks no nonsense. Michael Fassbinder's Sands is articulate and steadfast. The priest asks Sands straight out if he's in it for the fame or if he's simply committing suicide. Sands argues that he'll be a masthead for recruitment if he dies, which turned out to be the case.

The final half of the film shows us, once again with minimal dialogue, how a man starves himself to death. Fassbinder really does lose the weight, and the bleeding sores look pitifullu authentic. With no melodrama, no fuss, just simple bureaucratic note-taking, Sands simply wastes away, the white sheet is pulled over his body, and the movie ends.

Steve McQueen's film strikes a fine balance between explaining the stance on each side - showing the consequences of violence both for the prison guards and for the prisoners. It never sensationalises or glorifies but merely shows us, unblinkingly, what's involved in such extreme choices. It's a strength of the movie that while I came out of the film essentially unchanged in my political stance on the Maze and Sands' actions, I felt that I could finally understand and empathise with his choice, and almost, but not quite, respect the resolution it must have taken.

As Mrs Thatcher said, "Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims". This film shows us the thought behind that choice - both his choice to be an active Republican and his choice to starve himself - in an insightful, intelligent, honest manner. Michael Fassbinder and Steve McQueen deserve all the plaudits they are receiving.

HUNGER played Cannes where Steve McQueen won the Camera d'Or, Sydney where it won the Sydney Prize, Toronto where it won the Discovery Award, New York and London 2008. It is currently on release in Grece and the Netherlands and opens in the UK on October 31st. It opens in Belgium on November 12th and in France on November 19th.

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