The Institutional Divide

This film about an Irish prisoner's hunger strike is amazing, fully realized art

Hunger presents the events surrounding the death of Bobby Sands. In 1981, he committed slow suicide in a hunger strike while protesting the conditions in HM Prison Maze, where he and hundreds of other Irish Republican Army members were housed.

A movie about someone dying of hunger could easily be maudlin, talky, boring and preachy. But experimental film artist Steve McQueen tried another route, and wound up crafting one of the most beautifully realized films of the decade. Combining experimental technique with minimal narrative, McQueen's film is captivating, haunting and horrifying. Most of all, it's a tremendous work of art that says "no" to the fast-cutting and expensive editing styles of modern cinema.

Hunger is set in the H blocks of Prison Maze, where prisoners deemed terrorists were kept. The IRA members held there refused to wear prison uniforms, instead engaging in "the blanket protest" wherein they wrapped themselves in sheets. Further, they were not allowed to use the toilets without their uniforms, so they defecated in their cells and smeared feces on the walls in "no wash" and "dirty" protests.

These are not exactly things you'd normally want to look at, but in McQueen's hands, the smearing of shit becomes hypnotic, a slow and unpleasant but somehow irresistible spectacle. Each shot, each moment, is so perfectly composed that the film—which features almost no dialogue in the first 50 minutes, and has music only in brief patches—is totally engaging in a way that action films, which suffer from the need to explain themselves, never could be.

McQueen begins his film with a nervous prison guard silently leaving his home to drive to work. His bruised knuckles indicate some off-screen violence. A prisoner is brought in, and one scene later, his head is bleeding, again indicating off-camera action. The refusal to reveal the violence makes it all the more tense; the characters' failure to speak to each other makes their acting more important.

But McQueen doesn't hold back forever; ultimately, prisoners are dragged from their cells, beaten with sticks, thrust underwater and scrubbed down with brooms. The knuckles of the guard return, now openly bleeding.

But the film doesn't rely on the violence to maintain interest. In one long, very slow shot, a hallway full of urine is slowly mopped by a single guard. Explaining why this shot is so great is like trying to put music into words; some things can't be captured in writing. But the simple perspective of the long hallway, with the zigzag action of the lone guard mopping as he walks, has a quality like a painting that's come, just barely, to life.

The first half of the film follows prisoner Davey (Brian Milligan) as he's processed and tossed into a shit-covered cell with fellow IRA member Gerry (Liam McMahon). Then these characters are dropped as the focus shifts to Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and his role in the hunger strike that ended his life.

After no dialogue for the first 50 minutes of the film, McQueen makes a daring choice and inserts at that point a 13-minute-long sequence where McQueen talks about his plans to a visiting priest. During this time, the camera remains entirely stationary in a two-shot. Then it switches to a six-minute close-up of Fassbender's face as he tells a story from Sands' childhood. The sequence ends, and there's no further conversation in the film, with only a few snippets of dialogue as the final half-hour focuses on Sands' slowly starving frame.

The contrast between the two halves of the film is stark, but McQueen uses it to make rich comments on the institutional structure. Whereas the first half features brutal guards and violent interactions between inmates and officials, the second half shows an almost surreal concern on the part of the medical staff members who are tasked with watching Sands die. They gently bathe him, clean his wounds, add padding to his bed and do everything in their power to make him comfortable.

But none of these plot or story points captures the essence of this movie, which is so strongly visual. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt created a form of moving art that's rarely explored outside of museums, galleries and installations. The idea of using film-as-art to make an art film is strangely underexplored; even the titans of art film, people like Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa, still wanted to tell stories, and allowed the narratives to take priority.

McQueen hasn't neglected his tale, but he hasn't really told it, either. You'd certainly understand what was going on if you walked into Hunger with little knowledge of the IRA protests, but the film is hardly a disquisition on the issues involved. Instead, it's a visual representation of the suffering that occurred in the institution, and not simply the suffering of the prisoners: McQueen shows, but does not tell, the anguish, horror and twisted pleasures that occur on both sides of the institutional divide.

But none of this explains the film; it simply has to be seen. Composition, lighting and a deliberate slowness that trusts an audience's ability to recognize what is interesting without being told by expository dialogue or compelled by intrusive music mark this work. Anyone who wants to see another possibility in filmmaking—one realized to near perfection—should definitely check this out.

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