Tired old Margaret Thatcher died this week, FINALLY, and news of her death immediately made me turn my thoughts to how happy republican Irish folks (and apparently most British folks as well) would be about her passing, especially those that engaged in paramilitary activities during The Troubles. Bobby Sands and the other nine hunger strikers – Francie Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee and Mickey Devine – that Thatcher and her bullshit conservative politics allowed to die while in prison were the first people I thought of. All associated with the IRA (Irish Republican Army), these men wanted to be considered political, not criminal, prisoners and to have these few rights:
- the right not to wear a prison uniform
- the right not to do prison work
- the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organize educational and recreational pursuits
- the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week
- full restoration of remission lost through the protest
The Republican paramilitaries’ armed struggle was a war to them. They, unlike their Unionist (pro-British) counterparts the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), all of whom were as brutal if not more than the IRA, were instead considered terrorists. When negotiations with the government for these demands failed, the men listed above began their hunger strikes, starting with Sands with each new man starting, staggering every two weeks. This film follows the brutality that the men faced while in prison at Long Kesh/HMP Maze located just southwest of Belfast as well as the documentation of Sands’ (Michael Fassbender in one of the finest performances of the new millennium) hunger strike.
McQueen‘s choices for this film are pretty ballsy. He and co-writer Enda Walsh open the film with prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), almost as if they intend to trick us into identifying with him from the outset. We see him soaking his hands in water in the sink in the bathroom, then getting dressed and leaving for work. He inspects under his car, which may confuse some people who don’t know the history of The Troubles. Lohan is looking for bombs, a tactic frequently employed by the IRA as well as the Unionist groups. And for the first ten minutes of the film, we are only privy to his point of view, what goes on in his world.
Lohan, taking a break from his “work.”
It isn’t until Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) is processed as a political prisoner that we get a sense of the violence enacted on the prisoners. As he is ushered to his cell, the shot of the bleeding, open wound on the top of his head is prominent. When we finally get a shot of Gillen’s face as he enters the feces smeared cell (the prisoners in Long Kesh were on a “dirty” protest, refusing to shower or remove their own waste from their cells), we see the blood streaming from a cut and him with an already black eye. Having been escorted by Lohan, our perception of the man the film spent the first ten minutes privileging is now changed. And it only gets worse.
Gillen and Gerry Campbell (background) on the blanket.
For the next 15 to 20 minutes, we see Long Kesh and the prisoners plight through the point of view of Gillen and his cellmate Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon) as they navigate life in prison as protestors. We see how the prisoners pass and receive information to the outside world, smuggle things into the prison (usually via women) and how they carry out their protest – wiping feces on the walls, dumping their urine into the hallways outside the cells, dumping food scraps in the corner to rot, etc. When the guards come to remove the prisoners to clean them and their cells up, we get the first taste of REAL violence and we see why Lohan was soaking his hands in the sink in the opening scene – they are bruised and scarred from beating the prisoners.
The aftermath of cleaning up the prisoners.
This depiction of violence is exceedingly visceral and as the guards hold down the prisoners, cutting their hair and trimming their beards, actually knicking the scalp and chins causing them to bleed, we see what bastards these prison guards and the policies they enforce really are. As each snip of the scissors covers the gloved hands of the guards with blood, the more we flinch. The last shot of the scene with Lohan once again soaking his bloodied knuckles in the sink, we see the bathtub used to wash the prisoner (with pushbrooms and stiff-bristled brushes against his will), water still sloshing, rust-colored from the blood. Such a haunting image.
Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands.
It is 30 minutes into the film that we finally meet the main character of this story – Bobby Sands. This is also an interesting choice by the filmmakers, but one that I think pays off. Rather than focusing on Sands from the outset, McQueen and Walsh instead focus on the struggle for rights that these men were fighting for, the absurdity of the government’s position with regards to them and the clear violation of human rights involving their treatment. To me, Sands’ entrance into the film is that much more powerful. He literally embodies the Republican movement, heart and soul, and that’s no more obvious than this scene with Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham):
This scene might be my favorite of any in any film. Rarely is it that there is a back and forth like this in film, one that, while conveying a tremendous amount of information/exposition, doesn’t take away from the film or take you out of the frame of mind that you are watching a film. If you’ve ever tried to write a script, this is one of the hardest things to keep from doing. That the scene is shot in one take is all the more impressive.
Almost as impressive is the monologue by Sands directly after this exchange:
His strength and resolve are confirmed and undeniable for what he’s about to undertake. Exceedingly powerful.
That violence begets violence is kind of a treatise in the struggle the Catholics of Ireland have with Britain. The centuries of violence, discrimination and abuse that the Irish have felt at the hands of the British only had one natural outcome – that they, too, would respond with violence. It was necessary (in my mind) and it worked, well partially. Unfortunately, these acts of violence and their outcomes cost Ireland one of its most effective leaders in Michael Collins, may he rest in everlasting peace. We see this notion play itself out in the film as well when Lohan is executed while visiting his mother at an old folks home. Sins of the father, visited upon the son.
And so it is that Sands begins his hunger strike, turning the violence that he and the IRA had directed at the British on themselves. Thatcher, the fucking nerve of her, had this to say about the hunger strikes in a speech at Stormont Castle, the seat of government in Northern Ireland:
“Faced with the failure of their discredited cause, the men of violence have chosen in recent months to play what may well be their last card. They have turned their violence against themselves through the prison hunger strike to death. They seek to work on the most basic of human emotions—pity—as a means of creating tension and stoking the fires of bitterness and hatred.”
The effects of the hunger strike on Sands.
It is this quote the leads us into the final act, where Sands’ health slowly deteriorates as his hunger strike carries on, his body withering away until it finally shuts down. That Sands was elected as a Member of Parliament during the hunger strike is not mentioned in this film, but it adds to the collection of crimes to which Thatcher is guilty – letting an elected official of the country die because she was too busy trying to emulate chief American dick at the time, Ronald Reagan. Even he negotiated with terrorists, Maggie.
Sands and the other hunger strikers, like so many Republicans before them, gave their lives to something bigger than themselves. Whether you believe in their cause or not, they had the conviction to stick to their beliefs and paid the ultimate sacrifice. I believe Fassbender gave himself over to something bigger as well in his performance of Sands and Steve McQueen as well. That an Englishman made this film, which is a searing portrait of the wrong done these men by the government of his country, speaks volumes as to how far relations have come with regards to this subject.
Hunger Strike Memorial – County Armagh
May 5 will be the 32nd anniversary of Sands‘ death. I wonder what he and the rest of the strikers would think of how the tensions have died down, that there is a power-sharing structure in place, the IRA have lain down their arms, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness have become politicians and that Catholics will very soon outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Hunger is available on a beautiful Criterion Collection DVD and it is also available to stream through Netflix. This film is devastating and haunting and I can’t recommend it enough. Steve McQueen is a talent to be reckoned with. His follow up to this film, Shame, also featuring Michael Fassbender, is as unflinching as Hunger. His newest film, Twelve Years a Slave, will be released around Christmas and stars Fassbender again, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti and a host of other top-tier talent.
Here’s the trailer: