Monday, December 15, 2008

'Hunger' and Bobby Sands

'Hunger' is a film directed by Steve McQueen that takes place mostly in the notorious Maze prison in Belfast in 1981. The actor who plays Bobby Sands lost a lot of weight in real life in order to portray the wasting political activist convincingly. This section of the film is not the only main focus, however, and takes up only the last third of the film. The rest mostly offers insights into the prisoners' mindset and their living conditions as well as the brutality of the guards. Interestingly brutality is shown from both sides- the RUC as well as the IRA.
There are two or three very powerful moments. The camera sits on a table looking across at Sands and his priest, Father Moran, in profile, as they discuss Sands' decision to go on hunger strike. Sands wants his priest's support and Moran is unwavering in his opposition because he sees it as a wasted life. The single shot is fixed in the one spot, without edit, and lasts for 22 minutes. Apparently both actors spent hours upon hours in rehearsal for it, and it was well worth it. Utterly convincing.

Another memorable sequence is when a single guard is using a mop to push urine down a corridor in the prison, sweeping it under the prisoners' doors, back from whence it came. You expect it to go for a minute or two at the most, because it is fairly simple and understated. It continues for a lot longer than that, however, and it is unexpected and gives you a chance to think about the various extraordinary roles different people have in this sick institution.

This time, we are in a cell, with its walls covered with excrement and maggots on the floor, and a single fly seems trapped by a metal wire door. One of the prisoners fingers it lightly as if it is an object of beauty or wonderment. This is a very European film in lots of ways, and the choice and length of shots are sometimes totally unexpected. I remember the British film 'The Magdalene Sisters', and a powerful scene in which one of the 'fallen women' exposes a priest by shrilly screaming out at him 'you're not a man of God!'during an outdoor service. This scene, too, goes a lot longer than you expect, and it is a better scene for it.

It is a brutal film a lot of the time, especially when the special forces are brought in to quell a rebellion. Innumerable harsh beatings take place. The beatings are so chilling because they look real. And in fact they are real. The director walked off the set in tears. His actors were determined to make it look as authentic as possible.

The film is a dramatisation. Nevertheless, when I saw Bobby Sands' grave at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast in 1993 it didn't mean a great deal to me. I would feel differently were I to see it again.

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