Hunger is a film dedicated to the struggle led by Bobby Sands, an IRA activist, who in the 1980s engaged in a deadly hunger strike to obtain the status of political prisoner. His fight was followed around the world, and caused a public outcry when he died after 60 days of fasting, without Margaret Thatcher’s wish to react. Steve McQueen’s film Hunger, which won a Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, presents this fight, which led to Bobby Sands’ death as a true Republican martyr.
Northern Ireland, 1981. Raymond Lohan is one of his supervisors at Maze Prison, who is in charge of the supervision of a Ward H where members of the IRA are incarcerated. The latter have started a struggle, the “Blanket and No-Wash Protest”, to assert their status as political prisoners. The latter refuse to wear the prisoner’s uniform and live naked, wrapped in a simple blanket. They also go on a hygiene strike, smearing the walls of their cells with their excrement, refusing to wash, and flooding the corridors of the penitentiary with their urine every day.
Tensions soon escalate into a real riot when the management of the Maze Penitentiary suggests that inmates wear civilian clothes. The prison then brought in a strong army corps to suppress the prisoners’ rebellion.
After violent clashes, warden Raymond Lohan was shot in the head outside the prison by non-imprisoned IRA members.
After this most unacceptable incident, Bobby Sands, one of the IRA’s leading activists, decided to meet with the prison priest to tell him that he wished to go on hunger strike. A conversation ensues between the two men: the priest disapproves, while Bobby Sands proves to be inflexible.
His message is clear: he wants to lead a hunger strike, in order to reach international opinion and get a gesture from Margaret Thatcher. His goal is simple: he wants all IRA prisoners to be considered political prisoners from now on… for that, he is ready to go all the way, even if it means letting himself die, with the help of other comrades, who will follow a strike like him. With each death, a new one will take his place: this is the strategy to finally make his voice heard.
The last act of the film is one of the most painful: as the days go by, we witness Sands’ hunger strike, his pain, his weight loss, and the physical impact of his fasting. All of this goes on until his death… without the British government’s voice being heard.
Steve McQueen’s choice to deal with one of the most painful subjects in the history of Northern Ireland is a happy one. For if we still deplore today the insufficient number of films dealing with the Anglo-Irish conflict, Steve McQueen is doing a perfect job of presenting us with the fight of one of the leading figures of the Republican struggle in Northern Ireland: Bobby Sands.
For that, Steve McQueen articulates his film in 3 acts, and draws a portrait of the coldest of the prison universe of these QHS Block, where were imprisoned the activists of the IRA.
Very quickly, and insidiously, Steve McQueen takes the viewer completely hostage: one immediately feels like one of the prisoners of the Block, living in misery and cold, bathed in the odours of urine and excrement as a result of the hygiene war started by the prisoners.
As the film progresses, the uneasiness becomes more and more pervasive. Michael Fassbender, who plays Bobby Sands with great talent, withers, suffers, voluntarily endures his pain under the impassive gaze of a camera that delivers from minute to minute before our eyes the suffering of a man of indomitable courage.
The bet is won for Steve McQueen: the film marks, permeates us, and delivers a most violent message on the Anglo-Irish conflict. All this in a most disturbing silence: Hunger has very little dialogue (except for the conversation between Sands and the priest in the middle of the film), which makes this prison most stifling and inhuman.
A film to be seen therefore, and which will undoubtedly give rise to a long reflection among these spectators!