Last night saw the premiere in Belfast of Steve McQueen's film about the 1981 hunger strike, a period of recent history that still holds an electric charge for people in Northern Ireland. Hunger is a fascinating and powerful film, featuring excellent performances - particularly from Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands - and mixing sequences of unlikely beauty with squalor and explosions of noise and violence. The scene that everyone mentions is the meeting between Sands and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). Almost the whole of their discussion is shot in a stationary single take that lasts 20 minutes, denying the audience the usual close ups on the actors until the end of the scene. It's an audacious decision, but one that seems powerful and justified rather than an assault on convention for the sake of it. McQueen spoke in his Front Row interview this week (on the site until Tuesday, unless they add it to the archive) about exploring ideas through film and that he was most interested in subverting the form. For the most part he has succeeded brilliantly.
Inevitably, many people in Northern Ireland are suspicious of the film and whether it will be a glorification of the IRA hunger strikers. The Irish Times reported the Reverend John Dunlop saying "I hope this isn't republican propaganda; I hope this is properly contextualised" as he went into the film. They didn't report what he thought after having seen it.
What I particularly admire about Hunger is that it sidesteps the litany of wrongs on both sides, which are almost inevitably brought out in any discussion or portrayal of Northern Ireland. People are nervous about anything that favours one side over another, everyone wanting to be on the side of righteousness. Ambivalence isn't a quality much-cherished because it is seen as dishonest: when it comes down to it you must be on one side or the other. Before you protest that I'm assuming too much about Northern Ireland, I'm from Belfast myself. McQueen concentrates on the brutality and strangeness of this situation, only 27 years ago, when people were starving themselves to death to protest against being held as criminals rather than political prisoners, and prison officers (and many others) could be murdered in any setting, even visiting their mum. What political discussion there is focuses on the ethics of deciding to kill yourself for a cause more than the rights or wrongs of either side. If I have any reservations about Hunger it would be the final sequences of flashback, which I found a little jarring, but this is a stark and accomplished film that deserves to be seen, inside and outside Northern Ireland.
I can understand people avoiding this film because of the pain of watching the violence, and degradation (self-inflicted and not) but nobody should feel that they should give this film a miss because it is propaganda. I've had a look around to gauge reaction to last night's screening, but not much has appeared yet. I'm hoping that people will wait until they have seen Hunger to judge, but there will inevitably be those who think it better to form an opinion without having seen the film. An astonishing debut from Steve McQueen.