Moving images: art and politics on the screen

Today I went to see a film called Hunger. I haven’t written at all yet in this blog about moving images, despite a significant part of my time revolving around thinking, teaching, and writing about cinema. Seems appropriate, then, to make the first cinema-related post on this blog about Hunger, the first film by Steve McQueen, a visual artist, photographer and sculptor who won the Turner Prize in 1999. Hunger is certainly the work of someone who understands the visual, but one of the great things about it is that it is not only outstanding for its its composition of images, with an artist’s eye for the huge image on the cinema screen. The film also shows how the visual imagination in cinema can be intermeshed with sound and narrative, so that when you are watching the film you are captured in several simultaneous ways. (Here’s a link to a very good article in The Guardian about the film and about McQueen.)

The film is about the hunger strikes organised by the IRA in the Maze prison in Belfast in 1981. Many IRA members in the prison took part in a series of protests, in an attempt to compel Thatcher’s government to recognise the political nature of IRA activities. The British government refused to do so. The prisoners, for many years, refused to wash and to wear prison uniform. The prison authorities gave them each a single blanket, rarely cleaned their cells or their bodies, beat them and tortured them. Unlike the scandals at Abu Ghraib, which led to the trials of several soldiers, as far as I’m aware no member of the Maze prison authorities ever stood trial for what was carried out there. And after the ‘no-wash’ and the ‘blanket’ protests had seen no success, a hunger strike was begun. Bobby Sands was the first to go on hunger strike; a further prisoner began a hunger strike every fortnight after the commencement of the protest. Sands was the first to die; a further nine prisoners died too.

Here’s a still showing Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender), in the film’s amazing central scene (filmed in one 22-minute take), as he describes his commitment to the hunger strike in conversation with a priest visiting the prison:


These hunger strikes were a huge part of my early years at university. The newspapers were filled with stories about the hunger strikers; Bobby Sands was elected as an MP during his hunger strike; he also was elected President of the Student Union at Glasgow University (I grew up and lived in the West of Scotland, an area filled with strongly sectarian sentiment).

Seeing Hunger today brought back many memories from that period, and it’s amazing to me that so little is now talked about the Maze hunger strikes, and the ‘dirty’ protest, and the abuse that was perpetrated within the prison walls.

The film is very difficult to watch, in that it unsparingly shows Sands’s physical decline as he starves to death. But the film-making demands that we watch. I simply want to mention the first few scenes, which show a man getting dressed in his bedroom, washing his hands, and then going downstairs to eat a plate of food prepared for him by his wife. There’s no dialogue or music in these scenes. We don’t know who this man is (later, we learn that he is a prison officer). But what is so beautifully rendered is the simplicity of these everyday activities – dressing, washing, eating – activities which have been, as the film is later to reveal, rendered absolutely impossible for the IRA prisoners (who must live in faeces-smeared cells, with maggot-infested piles of rotting food on the cell floor, naked except for a blanket, filthy and unable to wash). These scenes take only a few brief minutes at the film’s outset, and they would be easy to miss. If you see the film – and I recommend you do – take note of these scenes, and the activities they show. They’re easy to overlook, we do them everyday. How luxurious are our lives that we are able to do them without giving them a second thought. How great is Steve McQueen’s film in that it shows what life can become when that freedom (to wash, to eat, to wear our clothes) is taken away.

1 comment so far

  1. Peter on

    Maud Ellmann’s book The Hunger Artists juxtaposes the literary writing and the the IRA hunger strikes. There is something of what she says in this film by McQueen … it strikes me that it is the voice that hollows out the body in the film (most memorably for me in the piercing voice of Margaret Thatcher) and it is against this hollowing out that McQueen reframes the image as cinematic and limpidly intransigent.

    Great film!!!

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