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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

The Brilliance of Hunger

Hunger shed light on something of which I, being an American who was born two years after the events depicted in the film, was unaware. While I can’t say that I walked out of the film with a greater understanding of the political reason why IRA prisoners would deliberately starve themselves to achieve their goals, I don’t think that was the point of the film either. Instead, I left with a pit in my stomach, having experienced something so visceral and harrowing that I was moved physically.

I understand that for a lot of folks across the Atlantic that there are sensitive politics at play in this film and I appreciate that; but truthfully, this is not a film that is overtly concerned with reasoning, but with action. When someone is willing to forego eating in order to starve themselves to make a political point, it doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with their message; what matters is that they are willing to hurt themselves for a cause. While you might oppose the politics and the method, you can’t deny that the person willing to give their life painfully – without harming others – cares a great deal about provoking change.

Set in Belfast’s Maze prison in 1981, the main thrust of the film is obfuscated for the first half of the film while we are immersed into the world of this prison and these prisoners. The first ten minutes show a guard at the prison putting on his uniform forlornly, leaving for his house in the morning and checking underneath the car before tentatively putting his key in the ignition, worried that it might explode because he works at a prison. What this opening does is engender sympathy in this guard, showing that he clearly is a human being that isn’t just a force of evil like most prison guards in movies; he is a person, capable of compassion – as shown when he visits his mother with flowers at a rest home later in the film – and repression. When we see him soak his bloody hand in a sink full of water, we wonder how his knuckles got so banged up, but we’re expecting that he will a central and potentially heroic character in what follows.

But the film pulled the rug out from under me by showing that same guard, who I had developed some affection for, brutally beating a prisoner and cutting his long hair so violently that he cuts some bits of skin with it. What this does, essentially, is show that this wasn’t some mere brute who gets his jollies from beating someone up; instead, this was a human being with a family and a heart, that somehow found it in himself to muster up the ability to inflict such violence and pain on another human being. The implication is clear from this – and other instances in the film – that prison is, for all parties, an inhuman and inhumane place.

The first half of the film focuses on this prison guard and a new prisoner, who finds himself brought to a room smeared with feces and a new cellmate with long hair and a bear. It seems, then, that this would be our protagonist, but once again I was mistaken. But this new prisoner also starts to smear his feces and eventually both of these men have covered the entire room in their fecal matter while also pouring their urine into the hallway. Yet, the new prisoner is also hesitant to masturbate while his cellmate is sleeping; somehow he is able to defecate and smear that excrement on the walls in front of his cellmate, but masturbation is too intimate. The new prisoner is trying desperately to hold on to some part of normal etiquette and humanity even as he lies in a room covered in excrement and bugs.

The entire first half of the film is almost silent apart from a few innocuous sentences involving the prisoners wanting to wear their own clothes instead of prison-issued coveralls; instead, they wear nothing for the most part. The opening forty minutes of the film reminded me of the wordless opening of There Will Be Blood and it’s a brilliant technique by filmmaker Steve McQueen (a conceptual artist making his first feature and not to be confused with the deceased star of Papillon); without words to give us context, the audience is instead forced to look deeper and focus harder on the small gestures and glances.

Then, halfway through the film, we are introduced to our main character – kind of how Frances McDormand is introduced a third of the way into Fargo – Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbender in a revelatory performance. He is something of a leader amongst his fellow IRA prisoners and in the middle of the film, there is a nearly twenty-minute scene without a single edit, where he talks with a priest about his plans to go on a hunger strike. In a film that was nearly bereft of dialogue, we are suddenly given a scene that is essentially nothing but dialogue and the non-movement of the camera makes us focus on the words that are being spoken.

What is said in that scene provides the context and the argument for the entire film. Bobby Sands is willing to die for his cause and he is willing to die painfully and the priest understands this and is sympathetic to a point, but he it’s clear that he is wary of giving Sands absolution for what he’s going to do. The priest makes it clear that he believes the hunger strike is not the right course of action, that he believes that Sands should talk things out, ironic in a film where talking hasn’t been necessary.

The fascinating part of this scene is that it makes it plain that Sands is fully aware of what he is about to do, that he is going to give up one of the most basic necessities of humanity: food. He is shown to be a rational, intelligent human being that has consciously come to this decision to basically not be human any longer. The fact that he is deliberately giving up his own humanity in a place that has beaten so much of it out of him already speaks to his passion about the cause. And that is something that, despite what you think about his political stance, demands a kind of respect.

What follows is something similar to watching The Passion of the Christ, but the wounds are all self-inflicted. We watch a man who was full of life and vigor become reduced to, quite literally, nothing but a heap of skin and bones. All vitality drains out of him, he develops sores all over his body and the bones protrude sharply through his skin. Clearly, this is extraordinarily difficult to watch in the same way that Mel Gibson’s film was and it has a similarly religious undercurrent. In the scene with the priest, Sands talks not about Jesus, but about the thief next to him and how it wasn’t difficult for Christ to hang on the cross knowing that he would be sitting beside his father in heaven when it was all over; but for that thief, not knowing that anything but pain was coming, that’s the difficult part. And when Sands refuses food, he is basically nailing himself to the cross, not knowing what will come except the pain of starvation.

Hunger is one of the best films of the year and if I had managed to see it during its limited release in December, it would have been high up on my top ten list. Steve McQueen is clearly an auteur, an artist, that demands to be watched. He is able to show the reflection of light in a flood of piss and make it seem almost beautiful; or the concentric circles on a wall full of shit being washed away by the strength of a hose and it is one of the most gorgeous images I’ve seen this year. There are so many contrivances in the “prison” genre that are completely absent from McQueen’s film, which focuses on the faces of characters and their surroundings. The theme is not pushed forward by plot or by character but by feeling and emotion, which is enormously difficult in such a visual and aural medium. Now that he’s been able to show the beauty in detritus, I can’t wait to see what else he shines his light on.

There are a couple of good films in the cinema right now that will make you feel like you’ve spent your money well and been entertained. But there is nothing in a movie theater at this moment that is more important from the standpoint of cinematic history than Hunger. McQueen is destined to be one of the great directors and important voices and trust me when I say that you will want to be on the bandwagon early.

– Noah Forrest
March 23, 2009

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

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There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon