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A new film about Bobby Sands

A new film about Bobby Sands

I went to see the film Hunger last Friday night at the Cork Film Festival.  I left afterwards with very mixed feeling.

Firstly about the film.  It’s about the Hunger Strikes in 1981 in the North and centrally about Bobby Sands and his decision/ ‘the decision’ to go on  that strike.  The film breaks down into three parts.  The first – and by far the best – sets the scene for the film: incarceration in the Maze prison, the issue of political status, the ‘dirty protest’, the cruel conditions in the prison, the overwhelming power of the prison system and administration, the vicious and brutal treatment meted out to the prisoners by that system.  The leads, logically, to a middle section – in effect a long and meandering dialogue between Sands and a priest around Sands’s decision to go on hunger strike.  The final section is the hunger strike itself ending in Sands’s death.

Much is left out in this study which seems to have the ambition of looking at Sands and the stand he made at close quarters.  From a purely visual point of view Hunger has high impact – as the combination of excellent camera work, scene setting and acting, all within a claustrophobic and unsettling prison situation lends itself to an inevitably tense and tragic confrontation that is at the heart of the film.  But if the visual is one of the better aspects of this film, it is not without its flaws either.  Sands’s death doesn’t have any special impact as it should.  We see a thinner actor and a man clearly in a distraught state of mind but the real natter of the physical sacrifice and ordeal that went for what was the first of ten hunger strikers to die is not realised in the culminating section, and especially not visually.  From a narrative point of view also this section disappoints as the problem of filling time is solved by a series of strange and enigmatic shots of crows in leafless wintry trees.  As death approaches Sands’s is shown in a state of delirium being revisited by himself as a young boy.  All fine, in and of itself, but that was a lot more that could have been done or shown at this juncture if you ask me.

Hunger strikes are devastating in every sense of the word and this is just not conveyed in the film.  Nor is the real impact of the strike, in the wider arena.  Clearly it was a choice by McQueen, the director, not to tackle this aspect but this really was a loss to the film – and perhaps a reflection of the director’s and the scriptwriter’s fear of the political.  This is all the more odd given the effort made in the early stage of the film to show the conditions that gave rise to the hunger strike – the brutal treatment forced on the prisoners at Thatcher’s behest.  Yet there is no real return to the world of the prison to show the impact of the Sands’s death on the prisoners themselves or on their struggle to survive.  Nor do we see at all the cumulative atmosphere that surrounded the strikes in ’81 which was created by the successive deaths before it was brought to an end.  Apart that is from a few sentences at the end before the credits.

Politics wise the film is at its best with regard to the brutality of the prison regime.  But in other respects it appears to steer clear of the wider context and the struggle that led up to the hunger strike – and I mean ‘struggle’ in the widest sense of the world.  This was epitomised for me by the statement made by Enda Walsh – the script writer on this occasion – after the Cork Film Festival showing to the effect that what happened tragically back in 1980/ 1981 in the North was down, in the end, to a failure to communicate.  Sorry, did I read that right?  I’m afraid yes, you did.  Ah, if life and politics was only so simple.

In the end I was left also with a curious sense of anger not at what I witnessed but about what I witnessed.  As I said the first section showing the violence of the Maze regime is effective.  And yet I recall that when we spoke of this back in ’81and we tried to raise the issues at the heart of that struggle with the media and with those with some power to do something about it, we were told ‘nonsense’ and ‘don’t be exaggerating things now’.  Yes, and more.  And let’s not be shy about this: many who spoke up and were adamant about what Hunger shows, were treated to visits by the Special Branch and other threats.  It seemed to me that to speak of this matter in another time and in another context had altogether other connotations and consequences.  And yet now, all this time later, the violence can be shown easily and without any need for moderation.  Indeed it is positively flung in the audience’s face.  I am angry at this double standard.   When it no longer matters, it seems, we can ‘appreciate’ and even ‘enjoy’ the depths of violence that the state is capable of.  But when it does matter, when people and individuals must struggle at great odds – well then in those circumstances it is another thing altogether.  And I think what this points up for me now more than anything else is this film is part of process of trying to make us forget not remember.

In the end then: an interesting film but quite flawed.  I am told it was an ‘artist’s film’ rather than a political film – whatever that means?   And interesting subject in itself to turn to at some stage in the future.  Mind boggling stuff, really.  But anyway.

Written by Kevin Doyle

October 23, 2008 at 9:31 am

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