In the Mood for Flesh: Rare or Well Done?

in 51st BFI London Film Festival

by Esin Kücüktepepinar

Hunger Hunger and Johnny Mad Dog are two films that were shown in this year’s festival which pushed the limits of violence displayed on the big screen recently. The basic aim of both films is to tell very human stories. Both of them are politically involved, interested in the human condition during difficult times, focusing on the effects of the environment on people. Therefore, they are both strong and skillfully shot, meaning that it is dangerously easy to fall in with them, particularly in the name of their causes, whilst the brutality in some of their scenes are often unwatchable. However, presentations and interpretations are opposites. Perhaps the main difference lies in their interest in the human body. Comparing these two films underlines the fact once again that it is very easy to cross the thin red line between realism and exploitation.          

Hunger, which won the Fipresci award and the Camera d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is about the last months in the life of Bobby Sands, an IRA martyr who, after his imprisonment in the 1970’s, went on hunger strike and died in 1981. Also challenging the historical amnesia, this is the first feature film by British artist Steve McQueen who previously won the Turner Prize in 1999. The powerful, beautiful and harrowing Hunger’s interest in the human body directly relates with the human psyche. The director uses the violence for reflecting an instinctive survival point in the story. At its center (the body) is young German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands.          

The survival point in the story is not the body but for the sake of a soul. This soul represents the permanent idea of resistance. At this point, the perishable body is disposable but not the soul. The body not only serves for the survival of resistance but also as an instrument/weapon when you do not have any other. Though it comes from a helpless situation, this desperation also gives the freedom of control to his body which has already been locked up and left naked, both physically and emotionally. Self destruction or self-sacrifice? In the hope of changing things by resistance – at least his dignity – we have to take the latter.            

Commendable not only his command of visuals in story telling but also for a great understanding of how far body and mind can go, Mr. McQueen captures the essence of a political story and transfers it into a universal theme: the human condition in oppression. It also depicts what happens to the body and mind here. 

Unlike what Steve McQueen does in Hunger, there is no probing the horror of the action in Johnny Mad Dog, only horror! Adapted from Emmanuel Dongala’s novel by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, the film is set in a post-colonial, ethnically split African nation. This French-Belgian-Liberian movie is about Liberian child soldiers. Mostly boys, these lost children actually fought in the country’s recent war. It’s also the first fiction feature by the director. Along with Hunger, it was also shown in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard program and subsequently won the festival’s Prize of Hope. Though there is not much hope in this movie, all the children have plenty amount of guns and missiles. Played by Christopher Minie, the main character in Johnny Mad Dog is surprisingly (!) a beautiful 15 year old boy. Calling themselves ‘The Death Dealers’, these black children are like killing machines, terrorizing everyone, sometimes each other.            

Their motivation for this pantomime of horrible actions is in the name of the revolution and their states of minds are fixed by drugs which, perhaps, explain the surrealistic approach of the film. The hunger for authenticity here is fed on the surface. Beautifully shot images constantly show these young, pretty and furious black bodies and often focus on their dead(ly) eyes and flawless dark skin. Combining with the MTV style of fast editing, in the first 10 minutes of the movie we are in shock! Then we guiltily begin to realize the director is making no meaning from the rough materials of his characters’ bodily existence, while there is only a mass of flesh and fancifulness.            

The real danger about this film is that it counts on people’s historical amnesia. It also depends on the audience’s general hunger for confirmation. Rest in peace! It’s the need of confirmation on a shallow perception: whatever the conflict in Africa, it is directly related to ‘tribe versus tribe’ which comes from primitive needs and mis-directions. But what is this direction, where does it come from, and who created it? The film does not tell or show. With very little clue and almost no concept, this rude and raw movie demands our deep thoughts and feelings. While watching the violent killing of children, we are supposed to make connection between the disposal bodies and lost souls.            

In refusing the idea of what we are denied for reasons we cannot control, Hunger makes you feel chaos was the pure potential from which all things and beings emerged while Johnny Mad Dog exercises chaos as a brutal example of exploitation. Therefore, not for the same reason but with the director’s expectation, we sure are ashamed, horrified and petrified by this perishable movie. Hunger, on the other hand, is a well made movie. After all those horrific moments, it delicately and permanently stays in our souls. Rest in peace!

Edited by Steven Yates