• Film / Media
  • Hunger, Perseverance, Change

    still from Hunger

    detail of still from Hunger

    I recently saw the film Hunger.   Aside from my interest in the subject matter, I was equally compelled to see this film because it was directed by British artist Steve McQueen.  The film is about the 1981 hunger strike by IRA protesters in Belfast’s Maze Prison that resulted in the deaths of ten inmates including their leader, Bobby Sands.

    I was curious to see how a conceptual artist such as McQueen would handle a narrative approach to a thorny, political subject and how he would depict the revered – and reviled – culturally iconic IRA activist, Sands.   I was also prepared to be visually assaulted after reading the many reviews online that describe the harsh tactics used by both protesters and prison guards in the film.   (The many reviews and screenings of this film have much to do with the fact that it won the Camera D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival last year.)   And yes, the film might put you off your food for a little while but it is, in fact, a compelling, artistic visual buffet.

    I am also personally interested in this time period in Irish history because of my first visit there in the 1980′s.   This was a few years after the hunger strike and tensions were still very high in the North.   I have never forgotten the images of the barrier between north and south then – British soldiers armed with machine guns at the checkpoint barracade with barbed wire running over the top.  And the graffitti – the telltale signs of ongoing civil disobedience.

    The IRA hunger strike had made a great impression on McQueen as a child who was fascinated by the idea of human beings using their bodies as political weapons.  He felt that it was a story that needed to be told – and in narrative form.  He believed that was the best format for this specific piece of work, in part, to reach a larger audience.   But asked after the great success of this film if he planned a career as a feature filmmaker he said, ” I’m not in love with the 35mm camera any more than I’m in love with the paintbrush. It’s the idea I’m in love with.”

    Interestingly, the film does not engage the obvious politics.  Instead, the story is told through the thematic prisms of “man’s inhumanity to man” and personal perseverance and integrity in support of religious and political ideology.  McQueen also chose to tell this story primarily through imagery.  The film itself is 96 minutes long.  Only about a third of the film is propelled by dialogue.  Most of this happens during an 18 minute verbal tennis match between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a visiting priest (Liam Cunningham).  The conversation is a debate about the motivations behind -and the ultimate value – of a hunger strike that would no doubt result in the deaths of some of the protesters and whether or not this would bring about any tangible change in the political stalemate between the IRA and the British government at the time.

    This scene is sandwiched between two larger, almost entirely visual parts of the film.  The beginning includes visuals, in painterly detail, describing the ordinary rituals of a prison guard getting ready for a day at work.  The scene at the breakfast table evokes a normalcy that includes close ups of crumbs on the napkin in this man’s lap only to be subverted by a shot of his hands with bruised knuckles.  Obviously, this does not depict anything ordinary.   We are later given more visual cues about this man’s life as he leaves for work, looking up and down the street and checking under his car for a bomb before he heads to work.

    So, how does a conceptual artist largely known for experimental filmmaking and installation work end up making this sort of film and what of it?  Well, it doesn’t hurt to win Britain’s top artistic award, the Turner Prize.  McQueen won this in 1999 for an experimental film that was somewhat of an homage to Buster Keaton.   Subsequently, he was approached by a BBC exec who asked him if he wanted to make a film – for which he was able to select the subject matter.   Nice work if you can get it.   McQueen will also represent the UK at this year’s Venice Biennale.

    Talent, opportunity and serendipity often make careers but not always.   Few artists ever reach the acclaim of someone such as McQueen.   He was able to parlay his obvious talent and background in experimental work into a narrative medium.  He cared about getting this story in front of a lot of people and chose this specific medium in order to do it.  And that’s the interesting thing – he chose a narrative medium to tell an important story to a large number of people with no apparent artistic compromises.  This is rare.  Hunger seems to be a true example of an artist creating a great piece of work at the right time and in the right way.

    A great interview with McQueen about the film can be heard on The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell at http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/tt.

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    1 Comment »

    1. Hi, very nice post. I have been wonder’n bout this issue,so thanks for posting

      Comment by KattyBlackyard — June 15, 2009 @ 5:34 am

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