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23 October 2008 Edition

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Hunger Strike story a testament to human fortitude

PREMIERE: Director Steve McQueen, with three former hunger strikers, Laurence McKeown, Raymond McCartney and Pat Sheehan

PREMIERE: Director Steve McQueen, with three former hunger strikers, Laurence McKeown, Raymond McCartney and Pat Sheehan

Film Review: Hunger, Director: Steve McQueen, Starring: Michael Fassbender


The award winning film Hunger, about the last weeks in the life of Bobby Sands, had its premiere in Belfast last Thursday, 16 October.
Unsurprisingly the film has become the focus of wide political debate, most particularly in the North where the anti-republican lobby has circled the wagons to defend the establishment discourse as to what the prison struggle and Hunger Strikes were about.
The British Government, incensed at the film’s portrayal of the situation in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, provoked a storm of protest when it become clear the film was in the running for the prestigious Camera d’Or award at Cannes in May of this year. Hunger went on to win the Camera d’Or in May before scooping the international award at the Sydney Film Festival.
Of course Hunger, as with any film whose subject matter is the conflict in the North, will be refracted through a unionist prism. The intention being to rubbish any aspect of the work that portrays republicans and republicanism in a positive light or indeed doesn’t portray republicans as devils incarnate.
It should also be set down for the record that one of the wagons in the defensive circle has BBC emblazoned on its side. The British government controlled corporation in a number of programmes dealing with Hunger has sought what it calls ‘balance’.
On its Talkback programme on Monday 20 October we had contributions from UUP assembly member David McNarry who admitted he hadn’t seen the film and had, “no wish to see it”.
Edwin Poots of the DUP and former Culture minister in the Executive had seen the film but rubbished it as, “a reprehensible re-writing of history”, over its portrayal of the brutality prison wardens used against the protesting prisoners. Poots maintains the film has little historical merit.
No one from a nationalist or republican perspective was part of the debate.
That evening on Artsextra, Marie Louise Muir broadcasted excerpts from a question and answer session she had with the film’s director Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender who plays the lead role.
She insisted that to depict the prison staff as violent and the prison regime as one which permitted the systematic torture of prisoners  was to present the prisoners favourably vis a vis their jailers and by definition was an example of imbalance within the film.
Incidently, Fassbender ably dismissed Muir’s questioning by pointing out that the most violent scene in the film was that of a prison warden being killed.
The opening scene of the film shows prison warden Ray Lohan, played by Stuart Graham, thoroughly washing his hands before holding them up to the light to inspect them and ensure they were properly cleaned.
Steve McQueen, the film’s director, may not have intended to present Lohan’s washing as a religious act but it is hard to get away from  that view.
As someone who was in the H-Blocks during the Blanket and No Wash protest which culminated in the Hunger Strike, the Ray Lohan character epitomised the religio-political nature of the North’s prison service.
The prison service, an arm of the state security apparatus, saw it s conflict with the protesting republican prisoners as a crusade as well as part of their unionist duty to defeat the IRA.
Lohan’s is a character that sees it as his duty to break the Blanketmen. He is driven by a sense of righteousness – that his world view is morally superior to that of the protesting POWs, and it motivates him to exact retribution on them.
Describing the prison protest in those terms doesn’t sit well with a unionist body politic that has set itself up as a morally superior force for good that had/has no responsibility for the past four decades of conflict.
Unionist politicians are a people who see the violence of the state as morally acceptable or indeed an act of righteous cleansing.
The darkness and sense of the foreboding that underpinned the H-Block protest were ably captured in Hunger. The 24-hour lock up, no natural light and no visual contact with anything other than the man a prisoner shared his cell with, ably showed the claustrophobia of that world shared by the prisoners and their guards
As the film moves through its various stages, it explores the experiences of a newcomer to the No Wash protest coming to terms with the reality that for the foreseeable future he will be ‘surviving’ a daily existence living on his own with excrement, urine, and starvation rations and the constant threat of violence.
And in reality that violence was always on the other side of the door whether it was during a wing shift, going an a visit or on the way to or coming from Mass.
Forcibly washing the prisoners – systematically carried out in December 1978 – was a policy decision made at the highest levels of the Prison Service. Prisoners were dragged from their cells, by gangs of screws submerged in baths of water, sometimes boiling, sometimes freezing. All the while the naked men were being assaulted.
As a final act of violence and humiliation their hair was crudely hacked off.  
When it comes to the point where the POWs decided to hunger strike, the film sets out the context in a scene that sees Bobby Sands debate the morality of the prisoners’ decision with the priest played by Liam Cunningham.
That scene, the longest single scene – at 22 minutes – in cinematic history, is brilliantly gripping. More so because the dialogue sets up republicans as people who think and understand what they are about, what struggle is about and what sacrifice and commitment are about. Indeed therein lies the dilemma for those in the anti-republican kraal.
They believed they could isolate republicans from their communities; they believed they were on the moral high ground looking down with disdain on inferior beings; they thought the world would buy into their criminalisation policy.
Yet when republican prisoners, embodied in the courage of the Hunger Strikers, took their self-righteous moralism and threw it back in their faces they were frozen to the spot like rabbits caught in the headlights of a car.
That explains why unionists such as David McNarry can go on the BBC and say he had not seen the film and no intention of watching yet be treated as a serious commentator.
If unionism had the courage of its convictions it would look at the past, accept its responsibility in it and for it and work to make the future better for everyone.
From that point of view Hunger is a positive film as it is about people who overcame the worst of conditions and survived.
And the Hunger Strikers’ memories will survive as a testament to human fortitude.

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