Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008)

Posted by Matt Foley on November 10, 2008 in Blog tagged with

This weekend past I went to the cinema to see Hunger (2008) which is directed by Turner prize-winner Steve McQueen. The film has been causing a bit of a stir both critically and in the media; prompting both walk-outs and awards (most notably the Camera d’Or at Cannes this year). The movie portrays protests over a five-month period (1980-1981) carried out by convicted IRA members who are incarcerated but demanding the status of political prisoners. What is interesting for the Gothic is the form these protests take in terms of how they, firstly, use abjected body fluids as weapons of revolt and, secondly, how Bobby Sands utilises the self-torture of starvation as a political weapon.

As you read on I will try not to give the plot away (which is not complex) nor will I get involved with political side of things (which is complex). However, I do want to discuss how I, as a viewer, felt on watching the film and how I think McQueen, as director, has manipulated me. The movie is littered with shots (complete with artistic intent) that overload the viewer with blood and excrement, particularly the latter and particularly in the first third of the film. The movie poster below at first seems innocent enough:

However, after viewing the film you realise that the background is a prison wall covered in shit. As part of their dirty protests the prisoners refuse to wash or cut there hair but, shockingly, they  smear shit, blood and other bodily fluids all over the walls of their cells so that their spaces of incarceration look, to revive a dead similie, like shit holes. They also ‘attack’ the clean prison corridor by flooding it with urine. At first the viewer experiences disbelief at the sight of the dirty cells but  the horror is suspended until the realisation, when the men are actually seen dirtying the walls, hits home. All this points to the men attempting to fashion themselves as beasts and they end up looking like disgruntled cavemen:


However, the law does not allow dirty prisoners. It uses brutal force to bathe the men, before throwing them back in their cells in a barely conscious state. There is little dialogue in the film (apart from the a long scene, which will be obvious when you see it) and this lack of speech I think mirrors the subversion of the symbolic order through silence and body protests. The law, that so often in our culture uses language as a tool of legislative power, instead has to resort to brutal violence to subdue the dirty protests. This kind of violence is against human rights law but perhaps these men seemed less than human to the guards.

The final, and most imfamous, protest is the hunger strike that the last section of the film focuses on. Anyone familiar with Christian Bale in The Machinist  will get an idea of how much weight an actor can drop for a role and the fact that Michael Fassbender (Bobby Sands) has actually become so fragile and – for want of a better word – ill, adds to the horror of the final scenes. This is once more a horror at the body but this time due to the realisation that it invites: any human is fallible when starvation sets in. This film also works by privileging The Real over The Imaginary and portraying how The Real can disrupt the Symbolic Order.  Moreover, Sands is inflicting damage to his body that you may expect a tyrant to inflict upon a Gothic protagonist.

I am tempted to finish with an image of starvation but I don’t want to spoil the film by putting too many images here. If anyone has seen it then please add your thoughts below.

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