I have to admit I was a bit worried when I heard Channel 4 were making a film about Bobby Sands and the Maze hunger strike. Having sat through shite like Ken Loach and Rebecca O’Brien’s ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ I feared the worst. But ‘Hunger‘, by Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, is an artist’s film of intense emotional impact and real insight. And it belongs on the big screen, its compositions and rhythms fill the space. That it is a London born film-maker, a black film-maker, that provides such insight into so fraught and sensitive an Irish story is all the more remarkable.
It was commissioned by my colleague Jan Younghusband, Commissioning Editor for Arts and Performance at Channel 4. She is a woman with a purist and committed approach to art, as I learned from working with her on projects like Big Art Project and 4mations. ‘Hunger’ was five years in the making and conception. Through her work on the Turner Prize Jan came into contact with McQueen, hooked up from time to time in a cafe on Old Compton Street and gradually homed in on this most demanding of subject-matter. Film 4, in the person of Peter Carlton (who I worked with last year on My Movie Mash-up/Faintheart, which amply demonstrated his ballsy approach) came in to back the film as a theatric offering. I have to say, having just emerged from a viewing of the finished film, I couldn’t be prouder to be part of an organisation that creates a work like this.
I walk past Bobby Sands regularly in the form of a Christ-like statue of him in Newry, the town in County Down where my wife was born. She grew up in Northern Ireland in the 70s and early 80s – I can hardly imagine how she and her sisters will watch this film. Whatever you feel about the politics behind Bobby Sands (of which most of our (British) population is incredibly ignorant, and was so back in 1980 – as a suburban London teenager it was right off my radar beyond what I gleaned from Stiff Little Fingers) the portrayal of political conviction and of inhuman bigotry is as powerful as it comes. Thatcher’s voice, heard in voice-over punctuating the film from time to time, comes across as truly monstrous. Everything about its coldness and stridency speaks of the huge cultural gulf between the Lincoln grocery and a family gathering in West Belfast or Gweedore, Donegal (where the key flashback scene of the film takes place) or pretty much anywhere in Ireland or an Irish home.
My wife recalls how her life and the lives of all around her were overshadowed by the hunger strike. A time punctuated by the staggered deaths (they deliberately spaced the starts of their hunger-strikes two weeks apart to maximise the impact of their sacrifice). Looking back from the last few years it is only now she truly recognises what a troubled, hard childhood she and her contemporaries lived through. A couple of years ago we were in the (old) Tate with the children. They were copying some of the pictures in the Pop Art rooms. As we emerged from the gallery I noticed my wife was really upset. I asked her what was up and it turned out walking through a room of Richard Hamilton images of soldiers on the streets of Belfast [The State 1993] had really disturbed her and awakened ghosts. (Richard Hamilton of course also portrayed Bobby Sands draped in blanket in his picture ‘The Citizen’ [1981-83].)
When I first visited Newry in 1986 I was greeted by the most surreal of experiences – walking down the high street I watched British troops, armed with machine guns and equipped with radios, ducking in and out of shop doorways between little old ladies struggling along with their shopping bags. Nothing in my North London childhood had given me the slightest clue that such dark comedy was to be had on the streets of ‘my country’.
On my way out of the screening I met a woman who looked pretty shaken by the experience (naturally enough). It turned out her daughter works at the Channel and she comes from Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh. Needless to say she knew the one family I know in Crossmaglen, as that is the way of Ireland. I knew the hospital she was born in in Newry, Daisyhill aka Crazyhill, as my wife was born there too. I knew her school in Kilkeel as my wife went there too. It’s a small, connected place. In her family home this woman I got talking to has some of the tiny notes smuggled out of the Maze – that’s how connected it is.
I thought the starvation in Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild‘ was painful to watch and moving but it goes nowhere near the forensic observation of this film. The skeletal bodies are resonant of Auschwitz – and the crucifixion. And yet the film captures something incredible, something transcendent about the human spirit and will.
Towards the end of the film we see a flashback of the Belfast boy on a coach traveling over the border into Donegal to attend a cross-country race put on by the Christian Brothers (purveyors, as Pete McCarthy amusingly put it, of “the carrot and stick method of Education – only without the carrot”). Behind the face of the young Bobby is a blurred swoosh of gold, low sunlight on the ferns and bogland. It represents a paradise to the starving man.
Recalling when I first went to that place – Gweedore – brings a smile to my lips. I’d followed the roadmap and came to what I thought was not far from Gweedore. I stopped at a junction, reminiscent of where Cary Grant gets off the bus in ‘North-by-Northwest’ and gets attacked by a crop-spraying plane. There was a small shop at the junction, outside of which stood an old fella in a flat cap. I wound down the window and asked him where Gweedore was. You’re in it. Where? All around. He was trying to explain the concept of a ‘townland’ which was foreign to me. ‘Town’ I get. ‘Land’ and ‘country’ I get. But this was something in-between, half way to the imagination, between the word on the map and the ground beneath me was a cultural gap and an imaginative leap. ‘Dhun na nGall’ (Donegal) means ‘fort of the foreigners’ – foreigners have given the people there a tough time since way back – from the marauding Vikings (who probably explain my wife’s love of the battle and fighting scenes in ‘Gladiator’) to the screws beating the living shit out of Bobby Sands and fellow prisoners with their truncheons and tattooed knuckles. The same shit these men smeared on the walls of their cells in an astonishing act of defiance for over 4 years, the shit McQueen turns into a kind of circular abstract painting in one scene. The ability of people to survive that kind of degradation and brutality for the sake of an idea is ultimately uplifting. The ability to inflict that kind of degradation and brutality is to be the subject of one of my next posts (bet you can’t wait inspired by Philippe Sands‘ recent book Torture Team about torture in Iraq, where Steve McQueen served as a war artist in 2003.) So shifting Sands from Bobby to Philippe – not easy subjects but then 7/7 isn’t an easy day…