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A real hunger for change

Steve McQueen says his film is not political, yet it still shows us what people are capable of in pursuit of freedom and justice.

Kevin Rooney

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Many of the reviews of Hunger, Steve McQueen’s controversial new film about the IRA hunger strikes in the early 1980s, have focused on the scenes of brutality, barbarism and suffering. But the scene I couldn’t get out of my mind was arguably the most peaceful.

The dead body of Bobby Sands, who died leading the second hunger strike by republican prisoners in 1981, is being wheeled along the empty eerie corridor of the prison hospital with a sheet over his head. Characteristically, the camera lingers on every aspect of this long, silent and mechanical removal until finally the doors at the end of the corridor fling open and his body is moved into a waiting vehicle. With that the film ends, the credits roll and the deathly silence in my cinema was punctured by a loud burst of applause.

The scene is partly disturbing because it conveys a strong sense of the sheer isolation, silence and solitary nature of death. But it bothered me more because I was desperate for the rest of the story to be told. I wanted people in this cinema, and every cinema that shows this film, to know what comes next. I wanted to shout from the rafters that in many ways Bobby Sands’ death was one of the least solitary, least isolated, least lonely deaths in history.

I wanted people to see the bit where thousands of people spontaneously spewed on to the streets to protest this one death; that while that hospital corridor was deadly silent there was a roar of noise exploding outside from women banging bin-lids and young men building barricades. That the protests were not just in republican strongholds, but in previously peaceful areas in Antrim, Omagh, Dungannon, Ballycastle and dozens of other towns across Northern Ireland. I wanted McQueen to show just one shot of the funeral where I was one of over 100,000 people who walked behind Sands’ coffin or that great shot of an electoral hustings where the man who Margaret Thatcher branded an isolated, murderous criminal was elected to the British House of Commons as Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I wanted a shot of the huge and angry demonstrations of solidarity in Dublin, Sydney, Paris, New Delhi and New York.

But Steve McQueen’s film (see the trailer below) doesn’t do context, nor does it tell you the whole story, or take sides, or contain messages. In a series of interviews, McQueen has insisted that this is not a political film and that he has no answers to the ‘bigger political questions’. For McQueen, the film was about exploring his own fascination with the short news clips of Bobby Sands that he had seen on TV as a child: ‘People say it’s a political film but, for me, it’s essentially about what we, as humans, are capable of, morally, physically, psychologically.’

And for all this we surely must be grateful. At last, a film about a political event that neither stars George Clooney nor echoes the recent Michael Moore genre of teaching us right and wrong and making sure we are left in no doubt as to who the goodies and baddies are. McQueen is prepared to let events speak for themselves and trust his audience: ‘What I tried to do was make the strongest, most powerful film I could from the events and the story.’ When asked whether he worries that he may be accused of glorifying a certain strand of romantic republicanism that includes martyrdom, McQueen said: ‘I never think of things like that. Maybe I’m weird, but that’s not on my mind when I look at a subject like this.’ Despite my personal desire to tell British people the full story about the hunger strikes, I believe McQueen’s refreshing lack of an explicit political motive makes this an incredibly honest film. In allowing us to reach our own conclusions, McQueen credits his viewers with much more intelligence and sophistication than recent Hollywood crude political offerings.

The events portrayed in Hunger were a reaction to the British government’s attempts to remove political status from republican prisoners. The men inside Long Kesh prison in the 1970s had been politicised by widespread discrimination against the Catholic community, the brutal repression of civil rights marches – including the massacre of 14 unarmed civilians on Bloody Sunday in January 1972 – and the introduction of mass internment without trial. The prisoners never for one moment saw themselves as ordinary criminals and insisted that none of them would ever have seen the inside of a prison were it not for the political conflict in their country.

This political status was effectively recognised by the prison authorities, with the prisoners being allowed to mix, attend classes and wear their own clothes. As writer and former republican prisoner Ronan Bennett points out, ‘The political status we enjoyed was a tacit government recognition that what was happening in the north of Ireland was not some inexplicable outbreak of mass criminality, but the result of a political crisis.’ However, early in 1976, the then Labour government announced that this would all change and that prisoners would be locked up, forced to wear prison clothes and classed as criminals.

The first part of McQueen’s film is a horrifically graphic enactment of the ‘dirty protests’ that were the initial reaction to this criminalisation policy. As McQueen points out in one interview, British people may remember reports that republican prisoners had chosen to remove their clothes and smear their prison cells with their own urine and excrement, but much like Guantanamo Bay today, journalists were never allowed free access to the prisons. This film’s shocking and brutal account – which has been verified by many who took part – will for many British people be their first real insight into the government’s brutality and the republican prisoners’ extraordinary capacity to endure terrible conditions in pursuit of political status.

The most discussed part of the film is the 22-minute scene in which Bobby Sands tells a priest (unofficially based on the late Father Dennis Faul) of his decision to intensify the campaign against criminalisation through embarking on a hunger strike, to the death if necessary. The debate between the two men allows us to hear and consider the arguments for and against such a dramatic gesture and, once again, McQueen lets us decide which side to take. The priest uses compelling arguments against – accusing Sands of being egotistical and seeking some kind of iconic martyr status without any real chance of winning.

The priest’s challenges serve as a platform for Sands, played by the German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender, to put forward the most eloquent and powerful defence of the hunger strike I have heard. But whoever you agree with, the importance of this scene is precisely that Sands is given a voice and a humanity that were denied to him by the British authorities and the British media in life. In that 22-minute scene, there are also powerful insights into what it was about Sands and his fellow prisoners that inspired so many people like me to believe that we could change the world and challenge injustice. Here was an ordinary young man from an unexceptional family in a working-class area of Belfast who had transformed himself into a remarkable leader of an extraordinary struggle for equality and freedom. While many around him begged him to compromise on his ideals and settle for less, Sands showed us that some people still believe there are things worth fighting for.

At a time when politics has descended into a personality contest and our main heroes are either victims or people famous for being famous, Sands stands out as a true hero. The fact that a group of young men actually believed they could change the world for the better, and were prepared to die to prove it, puts today’s lack of idealism into sharp relief.

And Hunger has contemporary significance in other ways, too. It is a slap in the face for the many academics and politicians who are today engaged in a major campaign to rewrite the republican struggle as a sectarian, criminal conflict. Bobby Sands, the nine other republicans who died after him, and the thousands of nationalists who supported them show that at the heart of this struggle was a determination to end injustice that must not be written out of the history books.

In one interview, McQueen says: ‘What brought me to the subject was the notion of what an individual is capable of doing just in order to be heard.’ McQueen may not be political, but by allowing the voice of Irish hunger strikers to be heard at a time when many are still trying to criminalise their struggle, he is ensuring that the silence inside that prison corridor at the end of his film has again been broken.

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school, and is co-producing the debate ‘The Troubles, 1968-2008: Revising Irish History?’ at the Battle of Ideas festival in November.

Steve McQueen’s film Hunger is released in the UK on 31 October.

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