Film Eye: Hunger

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), Reviews, Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 17

Hunger
Director: Steve McQueen
by Laurence McKeown

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Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender)—director Steve McQueen captures the essence of what it was like to be in the H-Blocks and the decision by Bobby Sands to embark upon a hunger strike.

I met Steve McQueen and Enda Walsh (writer) when they were in the initial stages of writing the screenplay. The meeting took place in the offices of Coiste na nIarchimí, the republican ex-prisoners’ organisation based in Beechmount Avenue just off the Falls Road, Belfast. The street still bears the nameplate erected by locals many decades ago: RPG Avenue (rocket-propelled grenade, for those not knowledgeable). Today, former republican prisoners take visitors around the area on guided tours recalling the events of the last 30-odd years of conflict. History in Belfast is everywhere.
Steve and Enda had many questions about the hunger strike and blanket protest era, but I had one for Steve. I was aware that Channel 4 had approached him with the offer of £2 million to make a film, any film, about any subject he chose, so I asked him why did he choose to direct a film about the life of Bobby Sands? Surely growing up in London as a black person there must have been many other experiences or influences on his life that he could deal with? He replied that, even though he was only eleven years of age at the time (in 1981), Bobby Sands was a big influence on his life.
I heard nothing more about the project until the film’s success at Cannes in 2008 and subsequent film festivals in Toronto, Venice and Melbourne. I read reviews of it, all of which spoke in glowing terms, almost to the point where I wondered how, given the subject-matter, it could be so highly praised even by British critics. I wondered how an Irish audience would receive it, especially those of us closely involved with the hunger strike.

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The opportunity to find out came at the British and Irish premiere of the film in Belfast. It was fitting that it was held in Belfast, the city where the film was shot and the city that now has as its mayor Tom Hartley of Sinn Féin (who, under the pen-name ‘Liam Óg’, was in daily contact with Bobby Sands at the time of the hunger strike). The screening was hosted by the Belfast Film Festival, which grew out of the West Belfast Film Festival founded in 1995 by myself and another former prisoner. On the night, two other hunger strikers, Raymond McCartney (now a Sinn Féin MLA) and Pat Sheehan, were present, as was Séanna Walsh, former prisoner, close friend of Bobby Sands, and the man who announced the formal end to the IRA’s armed struggle in 2005. As is often the case in Belfast, there was a lot of history connected with the event.
But what of the film? Does it do justice to Bobby Sands and the others who died? I believe it does. This is not a documentary and it’s impossible to fit everything into 96 minutes, but I believe that Steve McQueen captures the essence of what it was like to be in the H-Blocks and the decision by Bobby Sands to embark upon a hunger strike. As has already been said by many other reviewers, much more experienced in the art than myself, the film breaks most of the film-making rules. The camera lingers for moments on scenes where nothing much happens and for the first twenty minutes there is no dialogue. Yet this draws us all the more into the setting of the prison, takes us behind the walls and into the lives and activities of the characters—both prisoners and guards. In that world not a lot happens; what does happen happens slowly.

‘The scene’—Bobby Sands explains his motivation to Fr Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), the only scene in the film that has dialogue.

‘The scene’—Bobby Sands explains his motivation to Fr Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), the only scene in the film that has dialogue.

The most remarkable piece of the film, however, and the one where we get to hear Bobby Sands speak and learn his motivation, is in the scene now referred to as ‘the scene’ because it is the only one that has dialogue. This is the part of the film that could have been all cliché if Steve McQueen and Enda Walsh had got it wrong—but they didn’t. Having read about ‘the scene’ prior to seeing it, I had expected a ‘Ken Loach-like moment’ where the politics of the situation are delivered in a polemic by the actors, but that was not the case. Apart from one (and I believe crucial) sentence where Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) says to (the fictional) Fr Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), ‘There’s no one to negotiate with’, Walsh and McQueen convey Bobby’s motivation and assessment of the situation by way of an allegory. Recalling an experience from his days as a young and eager cross-country runner, Bobby, without any direct reference to it, tells us how he sums up the situation that he and his comrades are now in and the decision he has to make, fully aware of the consequences that such a decision will have for him.
And the dialogue between the two is also full of humour, banter, the weighing up of each other’s position, and the mutual ‘slagging off’ of the Catholic Church. This approach makes both characters much more human, and the fact that the writers choose to give Fr Mohan republican sympathies (though opposed to the tactic of hunger strike) also makes for a much more interesting and complex interaction between the two. Interestingly, too, for ones who did not experience the real event, I believe that McQueen and Walsh capture the calmness that Bobby displayed once he had made the decision to hunger strike and which he retained during the last 66 days of his life in 1981.
It’s a film that makes you want to sit quietly afterwards. That wasn’t possible on the night because, as a premiere, it was a time of celebration for those involved in the making of it. It was also, in a different way, a celebration for Tom, Raymond, Pat, Séanna, others and myself—celebration that, 28 years on from the event, the sacrifices made in Long Kesh in 1981 are not forgotten and, more importantly, are still being built upon. HI

Laurence McKeown was a republican prisoner for sixteen years in Long Kesh and spent 70 days on the 1981 hunger strike. He is the author of several plays and co-author of a feature film, H3.

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