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Remembering Bobby Sands Through Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’
by Aidan Collins

Forty years ago, Bobby Sands began his 66-day long hunger strike protesting the British government’s treatment of him and his fellow prisoners. He did so for five demands: 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 organise educational and recreational pursuits; the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week; full restoration of remission lost through the protest. Bobby Sands’ protest, with nine other men, ignited the spark of anger across the world, throughout many communist’s and socialist’s hearts, and many who wanted to see a united Ireland where its border is at the beach.

Five years before the protest, in 1976, Kieran Nugent along with many other Irish Republican Army members were sent to jail, but were not given the status of political prisoners. Nugent began the blanket protest in 1976, refusing to wear the prison uniforms, instead putting together his clothing from blankets. Two years later, the no-wash protest began. Irish Republicans did not bathe, and smeared cell walls with their own waste. They were determined to garner attention, but, unfortunately, gained little. These protests would continue on through 1981 but were not as prominent as the hunger strikes. In October 1980, one hundred and forty-eight Irish Republicans volunteered for their first hunger strike. Reflecting on the heroes of the Easter 1916 Proclamation of the Republic, seven men followed through with the strike. One month later, three Irish Republican women joined the strike from the Armagh Women’s Prison. One hunger striker, Tommy McKearney, said if he died that his parents were to say, “he died an Irish soldier, not a British criminal.” Sean McKenna, one of the original seven, was on the brink of death; the British government was ready to concede. The strike’s leader did not know of the concession and ended the protest on December 18, saving McKenna’s life, while the concession document was in transit to Belfast.

Unfortunately, Margaret Thatcher rescinded the concession document in hopes the prisoners would not go forth with a second hunger strike. How wrong she was, on February 4, the prisoners declared their intention to hunger strike once more due to the horrific mishandling and failure of the British government’s ability to resolve the protests. Most of all, it was done with the hope to grant the Irish Republicans their demands and their political status.

Sands joined the IRA, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, in 1972. Five years later, he and Joe McDonnell, one of the ten 1981 hunger strikers, were arrested after a gun battle with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Them and two other IRA members attempted to flee but were soon caught. One revolver was found in the car, sentencing the four men to 14 years for its possession. There was no charge for possession of explosives, however, meaning they were considered criminals and not political prisoners. The soldiers were not allowed their political status even though their actions were politically motivated for the freedom of Ireland. The British were using their influence to silence any power the Irish could muster but could not stop these fierce soldiers.

The strike began on March 1, 1981. On April 9, Sands was elected to the British House of Commons, defeating his loyalist opponent, Harry West, with the help of supporters of the IRA nominating him as candidate under the label “Anti H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner.” Margaret Thatcher still refused to give into the protester’s demands after a month they were on hunger strike. The conservative government interpreted what Sands was doing as suicide. Fighting for his right to freedom and Irish independence while Thatcher denied his demands was not suicide, it was murder.

Steve McQueen’s jarring adaptation of this very story, which he titles Hunger, opens in the midst of the men locked away in the prison maze. Raymond Lohan, a Long Kesh prison guard, appears to be the hero of sorts; he quickly becomes the antagonist whose sole existence is to maim and torture. Davey Gillen and Gerry Campbell are the next protagonists. They are expected to lead the charge against the heinous prison guards, but they’re just a gateway to the true hero, Bobby Sands, the IRA’s commanding officer while in Long Kesh. McQueen focusing the story on the fictitious Lohan, Gillen, and Campbell for the film’s entire first half inherently makes the situation clearer to anyone who does not have much knowledge of 1980s Ireland. McQueen makes the extraordinary ordinary by compressing the backstory into a brief first act then moving onto what actually happened with Bobby Sands (portrayed with a powerful legitimacy by Michael Fassbender), taking great liberty yet never excising himself from the truth of the matter.

There is an air of general decay that exists throughout the entire film. The state of the prison, as well as the general morale within the walls, has begun to spoil by the start of Hunger. Prison guards go for a smoke every once in a while, basking in the snow, hoping to forget the pain they cause; but they cannot, for the IRA will not let them. While other guards are forcing the prisoners to run the gauntlet, forcing cavity searches with the same floppy gloves each time, one guard sits outside, crying, knowing that his work has broken every man there. The repulsing stench from within seeps outside the prison’s walls so forcefully, like a punch in the face, that all of Belfast can smell it. Those civilians can feel the bafflingly inhumane treatment that Margaret Thatcher is permitting. It ripples throughout all of Ireland.

McQueen uses genuine audio clips from Thatcher as a means to transition from scene to scene. Stating that there is no such thing as “political violence” and that the strikers are “using the basic human emotion, pity, to gain sympathy” ultimately showcasing her bastardization of feelings for her fellow human, McQueen infers — rather bluntly — Thatcher let these men die. For this writer, it’s a rather good feeling knowing she was alive to have seen this film portraying her as basically the Wicked Witch.

To re-emphasize: Gerry Campbell, Davey Gillen, and Raymond Lohan are all fictional characters. They could be based on real people, sure, but this is a story all about Bobby Sands told through these three lives. In other words: Campbell, Gillen, and Lohan are our introduction to the strike, to Sands, to a grubby, gloomy Ireland that ultimately defines every aspect of detail Hunger proudly purveys to the point of genuine audience recoil. (McQueen’s debut feature sets the precedent for his remarkably visceral filmmaking.) They let us in, with great emphasis on Gerry and Davey, to experience the hunger strike with them; with every droplet of urine and stain of blood recorded. Gerry, Davey, and Raymond together represent the masses of strikers, close to achieving a delirium provoked by their hunger for justice and a United Ireland. However, at forty-five minutes, Hunger’s focus shifts to a conversation between Bobby, who has been featured before this, and Father Dominic Moran.

The scene lasts twenty-four minutes. In that time, these two men come to terms with Bobby close to dying. Bobby, doubtful and scared (as any man should be on the brink of death), seeks guidance from the one person he believes can alleviate the mind’s ails and accept — embrace — what’s to come. That said, the only guidance Father Moran provides is exactly what Bobby doesn’t want, which actually tells him exactly what he must do. “I have my belief, and, in all its simplicity, that is the most powerful thing,” Bobby tells the priest. McQueen brilliantly showcases only the silhouettes of these two men, each seeking direction from God. Bobby eventually comes out of the shadow to inform Father Moran of a story from when he was a boy: A young Sands had to put an injured foal out of its misery while lying on the ground, near death. Back then, he knew what he was doing was right for his friends and for him. This made him a leader. Now, he must do what is right again. A monologue lasting seven minutes, delving deep into Bobby’s soul, explores his morals; of what Bobby feels is right and must do for a United Ireland.

March 1: Bobby begins his hunger strike. Fassbender, narrower than ever, is hoarse and fragile. By this point, I struggle to watch, as this shell of a human can barely struggle to stand. Hoping for Thatcher to give in, even if Bobby dies, something must come of it. Bobby’s sacrifice must mean something. He saw one hunger strike occur and subsequently fail the year before, but this one, as McQueen deftly conveys through gloriously languid visuals and compositions, has the unification of a disorganized Ireland on the line.

McQueen uses a multitude of unbroken shots to simulate the prison in a hyper-realistic way for the viewer. The camera, often still but prodding, watches prisoners abused by batons, fighting for their lives, shoving objects within themselves in hopes to preserve them when this is all over. It is a sort of nakedness that McQueen effectively captures. He undresses Britain for all their faults and displays them to the world with the no-holds-barred glint of a first-time filmmaker. We look on in horror as we soon discover for ourselves that these brutal acts of terrorism have been happening for centuries. Thatcher calls the victim the terrorist, the criminal, the bomber, the violent.

McQueen wants us to feel the anger he feels, and he’s greatly successful in doing so: His control over each frame, ranging from the camera’s formatting to the way he directs his cast, expresses a hostile contempt audiences haven’t seen visualized since Spike Lee’s firework-gone-deathly Do the Right Thing. A simple thing of making Ireland Irish again, there is a demand to make the country whole not only from Sands, but from McQueen as well. “They are unshakable,” as Father Moran put it. “Why,” McQueen begs us to ask. Why are they so unshakable? What could possibly be in Northern Ireland that is so precious that must be kept for the United Kingdom? The Irish certainly do not want to be a part of the nation that tortures and kills their supposed people. The loyalists are nothing but a bunch of fascist pricks.

McQueen gradually ramps up the acts of injustice throughout Hunger’s decently quick runtime to intensify the following scene. In the end, we come back to where we began: at home in the presence of food. Food is arguably the most significant part of McQueen’s plot. Take, for example, the film’s beginning, when Lohan’s wife provides her husband’s breakfast. The food crumples down off a napkin onto his lap. Lohan, not giving it much thought, is able to waste this food because he is reasonably secure in his life. McQueen mirrors this with a scene where Davey and Gerry must scrounge through their gruel for any semblance of bread. Anything left over they throw into a pile of garbage that they coat the walls in, creating what the duo regards as a proud work of art. In due time, though, the British drop in and power-wash it away. Such as they do with any art, any anything not their own, they steal and destroy. 

In the end, Bobby wastes — refuses — food offered to him because he cannot go against his Irish brethren. Lohan can waste his food because he has no worry in losing any scrumptious taste of the eggs and bacon his wife made for him. Bobby is driven, ultimately, to put the hypocrisy of the British under a spotlight, wasting what could be cited as a salvation in favor of his native land.

Bobby brings himself back to the boy who does what he knows is right. It may not be correct in the eyes of God, or a priest; but he did so to gain respect of others, prove himself a leader, and put the wee foal out of its misery. At Death’s door, Bobby faces this trial once again. He confirms to himself what he did was just and right for Ireland. McQueen’s Hunger is dreadful in its past but hopeful for Ireland’s future. Hopeful for a United Ireland.

Bobby was an Irish soldier, not a British criminal.

Sands wrote the last entry for his Prison Diary on March 17, 1981, St. Patrick’s Day. He writes, “if they aren’t able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won’t break you. They won’t break me because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people, is in my heart. The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show. It is then we’ll see the rising of the moon.”

Bobby Sands died May 5, 1981, at the age of 27. A hero.

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