The Hunger Artist

The Hunger Artist
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Godard once said that a film about Auschwitz would have to be made from the point of view of a guard. It is fitting, then, that in Hunger, British artist Steve McQueen’s debut feature, a guard ushers viewers into the nightmare world of the Maze H blocks where IRA detainees refused prison uniforms and demanded the status of political prisoners in 1981. The film opens on an ordinary morning in an ordinary suburban house as a man prepares for work. A curious set of scars runs along his knuckles. More curiously, before getting into his car, he drops to the ground to check for a bomb. As we join him in his daily battle, which pitches guards against inmates, we realize that the scars, caused by relentless punching, are merely a small part of a much larger catalogue of violence and degradation.

McQueen, who will represent Britain at the Venice Biennale next year, came to prominence in 1999 when his remake of a Buster Keaton stunt, Deadpan, won the Turner Prize. In 2003, he was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to be Official War Artist of the Second Iraq war, resulting in a stunning set of postage stamps depicting British soldiers killed in Iraq. But he says that Hunger, which chronicles the prisoners’ hunger strike and the final months in the life of their leader, Bobby Sands, bears no relation to his earlier work. And it’s true: none of McQueen’s output to date prepares one for this strikingly original film, which won an award for best first feature at Cannes this year. Yet, like all his film and video installations, the movie bears witness to an extraordinary sense of the position of the camera. Hunger gains its narrative drive from a rigorous articulation of shots, each of which yields its full measure of meaning, perhaps because McQueen insists on employing the widescreen aspect ratio 2:35:1. “Using that ratio,” he says, “there’s always a relationship to something else in the frame, which makes a narrative.”

McQueen rarely uses dialogue for his film work, and this project, too, was long planned as silent. Indeed, for the first 45 minutes, the sound track is dominated by a physical confrontation between guards and prisoners as the authorities first give in to the demand for civilian clothes and then cheat the prisoners with “clown clothes,” thereby sparking a riot. (The original script, by Enda Walsh, had more exposition, but McQueen pared the story down to its bare essentials.) The second half of the movie opens with a scene, set in the aftermath of the riot, in which Sands, played by Michael Fassbender (who underwent medically supervised weight loss for the role) debates with a Roman Catholic priest about his decision to starve himself to death. Shot without any cuts, this 22-minute two-hander may be one of the greatest set pieces of cinema. It opens with a stream of jokes that recall Yeats’s lines from his 1922 poem “Meditations in Time of Civil War”:

An affable Irregular,
A heavily-built Falstaffian man,
Comes cracking jokes of civil war
As though to die by gunshot were
The finest play under the sun.

But as Sands sets out a strategy that will see a fresh volunteer go on hunger strike every few weeks, it becomes clear that this is no joke, that we are witnessing a man determined to use his own body as the only political weapon available. In the 27 years since, we have entered the era of the suicide bomber, in which the body is ever more familiar as the ultimate political weapon. Hunger makes all too clear the logic by which death becomes victory. The true genius of the film is that it avoids all the larger questions about the Irish Republicans’ armed struggle in order to focus on the sequence of events that leads a strong young man to embrace death. McQueen describes Hunger as a coming-of-age film. But one might argue that the coming of age being documented is his own—that of an 11-year-old West London boy who became aware of the wider world as the hunger strikers and the Brixton riots appeared in montage on his television screen in 1981.

Hunger will open in the UK and Ireland on Oct. 31 and in the U.S. next year.

"The Hunger Artist" originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' September 2008 Table of Contents.