Since my husband Neil is Irish, we watch any movie that is about Ireland, the IRA, the Irish Civil War, and so on.
On Saturday night, we rented Hunger, which came out in 2008, and was recently released in the U.S. It is not yet available via Netflix, so if you want to see it, you will need to visit your local Blockbuster (if it hasn’t gone out of business…).
Hunger (written and directed by Steve McQueen) follows the final weeks of the life of imprisoned IRA member; Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender… who is from Killarney, Co Kerry).
Bobby Sands was imprisoned in Maze prison in Belfast for his involvement in the IRA and ended his life on a hunger strike. The purpose of the strike was to draw attention to the fact that IRA prisoners wanted to be recognized as "political prisoners" rather than just criminals. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was unwilling to recognize these prisoners as “political prisoners” thus several protests ensued.
Political prisoners receive certain rights that regular prisoners do not receive. One of the rights the men wanted was the right to wear their own clothes. In order to protest this, they refused to wear the prison uniforms. Throughout the movie, the men are either draped in a dirty blanket, or naked.
The prisoners also staged a "refusal to wash" strike in which they did not bathe, shave, etc. The most unwatchable part of the movie is when they show one of the prisoners wiping down the walls of his cell with his excrement. It is an absolutely disgusting visual. (Tip - do not try to eat your dinner during this movie...Neil and I both lost our appetites.)
Hunger is a short 96 minutes, but it feels longer because the subject matter is so heavy. There is very little talking throughout the movie, bar one scene between Sands and the prison Priest, Father Moran, (played by Liam Cunningham). Sands requests a meeting with the priest in order to tell him about the pending hunger strike.
In Sands’ mind, the hunger strike was his final chance to protest. The guards had cleaned the prisoners’ cells, cut their hair, and forced them to bathe. Sands felt that greater measures were necessary so he planned to starve himself to death.
This scene between Sands and the Priest lasts about 15 minutes and is extremely powerful. The two men, who both agree on the freedom of the Irish, differ greatly on their opinions of how to attain this freedom. On one side, there is a Catholic priest who believes that life should be respected on all levels; on the other side a man that was burned out of his home by the British and feels that drastic (often disregarding human life) moves are the only way to achieve freedom. Sands believed the IRA was fighting a war, while the British believed the IRA were terrorists. It is interesting how the same events can be viewed in such different ways.
Bobby Sands and Father Moran discussing the pending Hunger Strike
The other part that I found extremely poignant in this move was the side that focused on a British prison guard (played by Larry Cowan). The film silently and repeatedly shows the guard soaking his knuckles, bruised from beating prisoners, in water. Throughout the movie, the man is completely detached from his life.
In another scene, the riot police come into the prison in order for the guards to check the prisoners (look inside them for notes smuggled in during family visiting time). The prisoners have to walk naked (since they refused to wear the prison uniforms) through the line of riot police. The riot police pushed and beat the men as they stumbled through the hall of the prison.
One young guard tucks away behind a corner, and the camera focuses on him sobbing. All you can hear in the sound of a man being beaten, and all you see is the young guard crying. I found both this scene and the ones with the prison guard interesting because it showed the emotion that many men must have felt working in that situation.
The final scenes of the film all focus on Sands starving himself to death. The body does some disgusting things when it is not nourished and these things are on full display in Hunger. The actor, Michael Fassbender, lost a lot of weight so that he could dramatically depict Sands in his final days and it was extremely realistic and distressing.
Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbender
Overall, ten IRA prisoners died on the hunger strike before Margaret Thatcher changed the status of IRA prisoners to “Political Prisoners.”
Hunger was sad, and at times disgusting, but it was also thoughtful. It explored the idea of the ultimate sacrifice. When Sands had nothing left to protest with, he used the power of his own body, and his story is depicted in a powerful movie.