Steve McQueen's "Hunger": Hunger is for Those Hungry for Freedom By Mohammed Rouda

in 61st Cannes Film Festival

by Mohammed Rouda

The first thing officer Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) does when he leaves his house in the morning, under the eyes of his watchful wife, is to carefully examine his car. He tries to notice any changes since he drove it back the night before. He walks around it, looks underneath it. He also doesn’t forget to step out of the yard to throw an observing look at the quiet street. That is before he gets into the car and drives to his work.

Hunger, a first feature film by Steve McQueen, is, among other things, an observing eye itself. It is deliberately slow-paced without being slow. It examines the things that get into the frame, gives most scenes the actual time they need. The time of real life. And by doing so, one can only get deeper and deeper into the message drawn, and life formulated, on the screen.

McQueen’s film is about the life in prison of Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands (played with an amazing commitment by Michael Fassbender). It is about his death as a result of a hunger strike he started in a protest against treating him and other Republican fighters as criminals rather than as political prisoners. But this is not the whole film. Bobby’s appearance does not takes place until close to the second half of this 90-minute feature.

Before we get indulged by the director to this side and the side of Bobby’s life, we are introduced to other prisoners from the same army. McQueen goes back to events that took place in 1981. He shows how little things matter for the imprisoned mates. One of them refuses to wear prison clothes (at least in the beginning), while others use human waste to dirty the walls as a way of “artistic” expression. Not all of what the prisoners do is cause-related (some are more engaged in smuggling photos or hash), but what these continuous and careful observations do is to keep us alert while building another kind of prison film without the usual clichés.

In one scene, an employee (it could be a prisoner who accepted work, we don’t know as it’s not particularly explained) is cleaning the floors outside the cells. On a sound sign, every prisoner throws his urine-filled bucket out. The brownish liquid slips under the closed doors of each cell forming small-size streams. The cleaner, later, starts by throwing water all over the floor and then starts to wipe it all. Just before his finished line comes toward the camera, there is a shot in which the camera becomes his point of view. It shoots the cleansing of urine in front. On the soundtrack is Mrs. Thatcher refusing to consider IRA members as political prisoners, and commenting that Bobby Sands’s decision to begin a hunger strike shows that the IRA is turning to one of “most primitive” acts of emotion and despair.

The scene conveys a lot about what the film thinks about that statement, and what the audience will soon be watching: the slow death of someone whose crimes could be considered, among other things, as politically motivated, even though he is treated the same way as a thief or murderer.

Yet the film provokes us to consider this: If these were not political prisoners, why then should they be treated so violently? Outside guards stand on the two sides of an aisle and begin to beat up these naked prisoners thrown to them by the prison guards, as they try to force their way to the end of the line.

A number of times, McQueen doesn’t want to leave officer Lohan alone. We see him in beating matches, washing his bloodied hands, leave for a cigarette break looking empty yet angry. Then we see him sitting at the feet of his old, crippled, and ever silent mother in an asylum. He’s brought her flowers. He is talking to her nicely and kindly. She means a lot to him. But his life ends just there: An armed man enters the room and kills him with a shot or two.

The harsh realities of that period, as presented here, are easily echoed by recent stories and scenes which came out of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. And certainly, there are similar ugly stories in so many prisons in so many countries around this ignorant world we live in. This is a film about souls who are considered by some as unworthy, and about the dignity of the victims. It’s only when we watch the film carefully, we understand that life is still so highly valued by the prisoner despite the surroundings.

Very well photographed by Sean Bobbitt, the atmosphere created is hellish. The colors, when there are any, are inspiring. The fact that the director comes from an artistic background is clear from the style of the lensing, not to mention the style of telling the story.