Hunger Strike story a testament to human fortitude

An Phoblacht
23 Oct 2008

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.

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

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.


McCartney at 'Hunger' premiere

Derry Journal
17 October 2008

Foyle Sinn Féin MLA Raymond McCartney attended the premiere of the new film 'Hunger' based on the 1981 Hunger Strike in Belfast last night.

Speaking before watching the film, Mr McCartney, who advised director Steve McQueen, said; “I look forward to viewing ‘Hunger’ and I have no doubt that having previously spoken to Steve McQueen while he was making the film that his portrayal of the H Blocks and the Hunger Strike will be both powerful and contribute immensely to the unfolding legacy of that time. Discussing the criticism of the film from unionist politicians, the former hunger striker said; “There have been attempts by some to confuse what this film is about. For me it relates the story of what took place in the H-Blocks in 1981. People should watch the film and form their own views of its content and the portrayal of the Hunger Strike.”


Sands mural in city centre

By Roisin McManus
Belfast Media
Andersonstown News Thursday

An iconic new mural of West Belfast hunger striker Bobby Sands is currently being exhibited in a city centre art gallery.

The mural of the IRA volunteer and MP was painted by West Belfast artist Danny Devenny and is now being shown at the Golden Thread Gallery in Great Patrick Street.

Click image for gallery notice

The mural is part of an exhibition called A Shout in the Street: Collective Histories of Northern Irish Art, and is curated by Declan McGonagle

The exhibition features contemporary and historical paintings, sculpture, lens-based media, a bonfire stack, graphics and also broadcast film.

A Shout in the Street features materials from a wide variety of sources including the Cain Archive and works by mural painters Danny Devenny and Mark Ervine alongside works by a range of artists including Alastair MacLennan, Sandra Johnston, Factotum, Colin Middleton and Philip Napier. Danny says he believes that this is the first time that a mural of Bobby Sands has been exhibited in an art gallery. The mural depicts Bobby Sands surrounded by pages containing excerpts of his poetry.

A Shout in the Street runs until November 6.

Opening hours of the exhibition are Tuesdays to Fridays 10.30am to 5.30pm and Saturdays 1pm to 4pm.

McQueen wins plaudits for 'humanity'

GERRY MORIARTY, Northern Editor
Irish Times
Friday, 17 October 2008

'Hunger' premiere: award-winning film recalls final weeks of Bobby Sands

BELFAST WAS last night figuring how to come to cinematic terms with the 1981 hunger strikes. Being Belfast, the British and Irish premiere of the film Hunger about the last six weeks of the life of Bobby Sands generated controversy.

The red carpet was rolled out for director Steve McQueen and stars of the film such as Michael Fassbender, who plays the part of Sands, Liam Cunningham who as a priest plays what he called a "sphincter-tightening" 22-and-a-half-minute scene with Fassbender, and Stuart Graham, who plays one of the prison officers in the Maze/Long Kesh prison.

Unionist politicians such as DUP Minister Gregory Campbell and junior minister Jeffrey Donaldson have expressed serious reservations about the film, which was made in Belfast, suspecting that it might be an exercise in republican propaganda.

They weren't at the premiere in the Moviehouse on Belfast's Dublin Road but former Presbyterian moderator, the Rev John Dunlop, did turn up "because I was invited". He was a little uneasy. This is still a raw subject in Northern Ireland.

"People shouldn't forget that 50 people died over the period of the hunger strikes, 35 of them murdered by republicans and 32 of those murdered by the IRA," he said.

"I hope this isn't republican propaganda; I hope this is properly contextualised," he added before heading into the theatre.

Several republicans attended the premiere including Sinn Féin Assembly member Barry McElduff, and hunger striker Laurence McKeown, who would have been the 11th republican to die but for the fact that his mother insisted he should be fed after he fell into a coma, an act that hastened the end of the fast.

Also there was Sinn Féin MLA Raymond McCartney from Derry who spent 53 days on hunger strike in the first of the strikes in 1980 and knew Sands quite well. He was conscious of unionist concerns and had already debated the subject with Gregory Campbell.

"People should make their judgment after they see the film, not before it," he said. "If Steve McQueen makes a film in a particular way, go and watch it, and then come out with whatever criticism you have. Certainly I hope that my particular view of this period is reflected in the film, but if it's not then you can have a discussion about it afterwards," added Mr McCartney.

Film director, the former Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, emphasised the exact same point, saying he was attempting to make a rounded, balanced film. "This is a story about human beings; this is about the prison officers and the prisoners; that is what I was interested in. This is about ordinary people who had to deal with extraordinary situations," he said.

Killarney native Fassbender as Sands, Belfast actor Stuart Graham as the prison officer Raymond, and Dublin actor Liam Cunningham as the prison chaplain, also stressed the "humanity" of the work which has won accolades and awards all over the world.

"The thing that came to fore was the humanity of the piece," said Cunningham. "I would not have been interested if it was going to take sides or if it was going to make heroes out of an incredibly difficult situation. I would urge people to go and see it, even people for whom the name Bobby Sands would raise hairs on the back of their necks. This is a very well-balanced film."

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