Hunger: A Relation Between Film & Poetry

By: Eric Gregory

*****This analysis contains spoilers*****

Hunger is a 2008 film directed by English filmmaker Steve McQueen.  It is about a man named Bobby Sands, who was a Provisional Irish Republican Army volunteer who led the 1981 Irish hunger strike, and participated in the “no wash” protest in which Republican prisoners tried to regain political status. It dramatizes events in the Maze prison in the period of time leading up to the hunger strike and Sands' death.  This film without a doubt creates a haunting fusion between poetry and politics.  Cinema is seen by McQueen as an essential lyrical act that may bring justice and also the best vehicle to increase political and philosophical consciousness.  McQueen uses ritualization as a consistent medium for stylization.  The acts of violence and oppression on both sides of the spectrum are equated to collective actions often carried away through the vessel of one individual.

Instead of introducing the main character at the beginning of the film, McQueen defies classic narrative traits as our hero isn't introduced until after about thirty minutes.  The first person we meet in the film is a prison guard.  It is he who unveils our hero through an act of brutality towards Bobby fusioned with a daily act of routine and personal hygiene.  The guards viciously give Bobby a bath and a haircut during the “no wash” protest in which the prisoners refused to abide to any sort of hygiene.  With this harrowing scene, McQueen introduces us into a world where comfort and daily routine are transformed into moments of terror.  Violence and torture towards the human body is a recurring motif of this film.  The director orchestrates with powerful efficiency the duality between void, silence, rage, and violence. This strategy captures a psychological and emotional truth of the experience of imprisonment which can best be described as the dialogue between the mundanity of isolation and the fury of oppression. McQueen, by accentuating this duality transforms the genre of prison film into an unmistakable poetic experience.  The smearing of the feces, construction of little walls inside their cells with their food, reading of secret writing, these are all poetic transformations of domestic attention into unbearable acts of aggression, i.e. cutting of the hair, cutting of nails, bathing/cleansing, etc.  The cavity search is another unbearable act of rage.  This is a hauntingly memorable scene of abuse of the prisoners by the guards where they are beaten and have different objects inserted into their anus.  The director essentially equates violence and brutality with rape.  

The same way violence is inflicted upon the prison guard is framed in a haunting moment of paradox.  The guard’s job is presented as a normal routine for a normal guy, i.e. eating breakfast, spending time with his family, getting ready for work, etc.  The director bravely shows how violence has contaminated daily life on both sides shown by the guard checking underneath his car for a bomb and the anguished gaze of his wife fearing for her husband’s life.  There is also the scene in which the guard see’s his mother (who must have a disorder such as dementia or Alzheimer’s) in a nursing home and he is brutally shot in the head in front of her by an IRA hitman.  The killer moves quietly and non-chalantly.  McQueen fusions the mundane quietness of daily life with a brutal act of violence and destruction.  The murder of the guard contrasts what we expect of classic gesture of killing in reality and films.  McQueen continues his fascinating revelation of the dangerous dialogue between opposites, i.e. death and life, love and hate, etc.  McQueen paints a sympathetic picture for the guard as he is visiting his ill mother.  The Alzheimer’s she likely possesses is a fusion of opposites as she is present but also absent given her state of mind.  The director touches on a couple emotional motifs here as it is the last visit between mother and son, and also reuniting them not only in real life but in a virtual one.  This strategy permeates throughout the entire film as the constant dialogue between eruptive and destructive brutality coincide with a mesmerizing atmosphere of calm quietness.

Steve McQueen uses two unforgettable rituals to capture the fusion between the acts of rebellion from the prisoners and a quiet deliberate act connected to the experience of their isolation. As stated earlier, they use food to construct little walls within their bigger prison walls.  This can be read as both a poetic discourse on the ability or willingness to embrace their sense of reclusion, and a poignant illustration of their own entrapment.  The flow of urine is a memorable illustration of the prisoner's ability to express their desire for escape or for freedom as well as another act of defiance.  The sacrifice of their food to express these acts of freedom is a foreshadowing of the main motif of the film, which is starvation as the ultimate act of rebellion, as well as the ultimate act of extreme liberation.  All of these traits are embodied by Bobby Sands who is portrayed beautifully by Michael Fassbender.  Our hero gives the ultimate sacrifice of death in a Christ-like moment of imagery as he dies to help the struggle, progress of other prisoners, and can be credited with the eventual salvation of others.  One of the most iconic images of Christ sacrifice in the artistic and religious iconography is the nails and the stigmata of Christ.  They are almost unbearably transposed to us with the image of the emaciated bony body of Bobby Sands.  Image of the back, the sores that are the result of Bobby's sacrifice are unmistakably filmed as stigmata.  Michael Fassbender subjected himself to starvation for two months. The actor has physically lived the experience of suffering. The spectacle of the actual suffering of the actor is another connection with the extreme experience and relation of contemporary performance art and the contemporary artist.

McQueen continues the exploration of the use of intimate or vital elements to illustrate the prisoner's desire for resistance and the exploration of expression and freedom.  The act of spreading feces on their prison walls embodies both peace and rage.  The meticulous, methodic, almost contemplative repetition of the same gesture will create a fresco on the wall, a wall that symbolizes their entrapment.  The application of their own feces to the wall is a complex ritual, and a desperate act of resourcefulness.  Powerfully, McQueen captures the devastating essence of self-destruction and loss of dignity that is part of the experience of prison.  The scenes showing the fresco allows the viewer to contemplate an extreme moment of artistic revelation, i.e. the circling of the camera parallels the circling of the composition of this primal work of art.  Not only is this a powerful illustration of the process of suffering, but also the exploration of the limits of self that is a crucial part of both the artistic and poetic experiences.

In conclusion, Steve McQueen has shown us a narrative that is haunting, unique, and poetic.  Aside from the points discussed earlier; not introducing the main character swiftly, harrowing extremes of both quietness and brutality, there is also a very memorable scene where Bobby Sands is talking to a priest.  He explains to the priest the reasons for the hunger strike and eventual submittal to death and sacrifice.  What is especially unique about it is that there are no cuts in the scene as the camera gazes at the two characters from the side for close to twenty minutes.  Through Bobby Sands, Steve McQueen embraces the classic imagery of purification, rebirth, and reincarnation.  Hunger is a testament to how history and politics need to constantly be revisited as lyrical and poetic landmarks in human consciousness.