Sep 30, 2008

NY Film Festival: Hunger

Hunger, a film by British visual artist Steve McQueen, and winner of this year's Camera D'Or at Cannes, is probably the hardest film I've ever watched. It is also one of the most powerful and unforgettable. Literally, a work of art.
Hunger is about the hunger strike led by Bobby Sands of the Irish Republican Army in the infamous Maze prison in 1981. If you are expecting heroic melodrama a la In The Name of the Father, you are in for a rude and powerful awakening. Hunger strips the situation to the most elemental and extreme. It starts, not with Sands, who is introduced quite late into the film, but with the image of bloodied knuckles under cold water, a prison guard in pain. This man is then seen in flashback, ready to leave his house in a gripping sequence in which the basic act of getting into his car may mean his death. McQueen first shows you only the aftermath of the violence inflicted by this man in his own body. His uniform is stained with blood, he has cuts and bruises in his face and his knuckles are raw. There is a scene in which he goes out for a smoke in the snow and a flake falls in his bloody hand, turning into a droplet on contact with his skin, still hot from beating someone else. Every scene in this film is like that, intensely real, intensely beautiful, and intensely meaningful.
is an extremely violent movie, and the violence is disturbingly real. There are no guns. Bodies fight in body to body combat. The guards have shoes and clothes and batons and things that hurt, like metal doors and walls against which they hurl the prisoners, who always resist. The prisoners have nothing. In fact, a lot of the violence in Hunger is inflicted on the prisoners by themselves, as they are revolting against the British government's refusal to acknowledge their crimes as political. The Thatcher government insists on treating them like common criminals, and the IRA prisoners then refuse to wear prison uniforms and to take baths. This means they live naked, in absolute filth, making murals in the walls with their own shit. The scenes inside the cells are indeed a vision of hell. But they are a vision of hell made by an artist, and they have a terrible beauty that recalls Goya's dark paintings. Since they have nothing else, the prisoners also use the cavities (all of them) in their bodies like conduits for messages with the outside world. As you can expect, the guards violate those cavities regularly as well. The violence is savage and uncoreographed and totally unlike the cartoony, fake violence we routinely see in films.
Most of the prisoners actually look like Jesus Christ, with long hair and beards and lean bodies covered only by a loincloth. In one scene, which I don't think I will ever forget, the prisoners, a roomful of Jesus Christs, are taking mass. But instead of listening to the poor priest, they are busy talking to themselves. After years in solitary confinement, they need to talk more than they need prayer.
On one level, the movie transcends politics to show an extreme, relentless test of wills between the prisoners and the guards. The prisoners are obviously fanatical and totally defiant. What they do to themselves is beyond reason. The British cruelly exploit the situation by letting the prisoners rot in their own shit. They also actively humiliate them and abuse them. The stance of the guards is eerily echoed by the disembodied voice of Margaret Thatcher (never a reassuring one) in actual declarations she made about her refusal to bow down to the prisoners' demands. There is almost no dialog, there is no communication except for visceral provocations and retaliations. Things have broken down to utter madness.
The film is divided in three stages. First is the prisoners' revolt. Then, after Bobby Sands (the amazing Michael Fassbender) is introduced, there is a long scene, shot with a fixed camera in real time, in which Sands talks to a priest and announces his decision to start a hunger strike. Sands argues that it's been four years and nothing has been gained. The priest argues against mass suicide. The conversation takes a theological, philosophical, moral turn. The lull in the violence is not only a huge relief, but it is actually shocking to hear people talk in intelligent terms, using language with humor and wit. The debate between Sands and the priest explores the core of the conflict beyond just an endless series of brutal revenges. Sands feels the prisoners have been abandoned by the IRA. The priest cannot condone mass suicide. He even posits that Sands is sending people to their death. It is the first time that Sands hears a case against his own righteousness, and coming from a priest, you can see the devastation in his eyes. But he does not alter his course.
So then follows Sands' hunger strike, an exhaustive exploration of Christ-like sacrifice. McQueen does not shirk from this painstaking portrait of human suffering. When we see Sands in a clean bed with pristine white sheets in a clean cell, one thinks the hunger strike was not such a bad idea. We are quickly disabused of this notion. A doctor informs his parents of the laundry list of organ failures that happen at the second week of not eating (Sands lasted 66 days). There is a sequence where you see the plates of food they bring him and he steadfastly ignores. One can only imagine the added torture of smelling eggs with bacon and toast, smelling tea and jam, meat and potatoes. Sands is totally emaciated, covered in sores, gradually unable to stand or speak or hear. As in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a lot of this is shot from his point of view; blurred vision, blurred hearing, hallucinations. Total, basic, pared down, elemental suffering.
At the end, we are informed that 9 dead hunger strikers later, the government gave in to most of the demands, but it never admitted the political nature of the prisoners' crimes.
Every single scene in Hunger is powerful. Every frame is stunning, even when it is horrifying. It is a movie with the integrity and the committed vision of an artist, and its images resonate in the mind for days.

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