Wednesday, November 26, 2008
I just came home from seeing Steve McQueen's (not the Hollywood one, the UK installation artist) first ever feature film Hunger. WOW. What pleasure to see a well made film that actually shows a thinking man behind the camera with an aesthetic sensibility.
There is lots to recommend this film, not the least of which is McQueen's familiar power to immerse the viewer in the experience on the screen. The first half of the film is all but silent, and through this silence we are plunged into the hell of the Maze Prison in which the IRA prisoners were incarcerated in 1981. I remember the countdown (or up) of Bobby Sands' hunger strike on the nightly news in Australia. I had no idea at that time of what it might mean to be in the notorious H Block. But McQueen brings it all back to life. The smearing of the cell walls with faeces, the maggot-ridden food, the slops in the corner, the urine streaming down the corridor before it is swept by a guard, are all shot in long takes - prolonging the agony of looking at the image, in order to capture the dehumanization of being locked in those cells. In the most excruciating scene to watch, the prisoners are made to run the gauntlet, being beaten by the truncheons of the riot squad brought in specially for the occasion. Here we learn how Bobby Sands received the battered and bruised face that he sports in the first half of the film. It's terrifying to watch, and even more so to imagine. And another difficult moment to watch? As well as the wasting away, the growing lesions and painful deterioration to death of Sands' body which is graphically depicted. It's the realist moments such as when the doctor who cares for him strips the bed of the bloodstained sheets, and underneath the stains are as intense, and so the doctor, pausing for a moment, turns the mattress over to its other side. A practical solution to a very disturbing reality.
It's not a film that's really concerned with the politics of the IRA and their fight for Independence, though it is a film that rails against the iron fist of Margaret Thatcher through snatches of her ruthless refusal to give political status to the "terrorists." Yes they came before Al Qaeda, but weren't the first! It's also not a flawless film, in many ways, it's uneven. The film's set piece is a long conversation in the middle when Sands reveals to a catholic priest that he plans to go on a hunger strike as a final protestation. This scene is all dialogue, and sitting in the middle of the overwhelming silence of the film, it feels intrusive. What remains so powerful about this film is its vision (both literally and imaginatively) of a nightmare that might otherwise have been forgotten. And it achieves this through what is, in the end, a realist camera that takes its time to watch what words cannot describe.
Is this enough to have a political impact? I don't think it really matters, the point is, it's what McQueen has chosen to do by way of political statement, and it's what he does best.