In a 2008 New York Times interview, British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen outlined his interest in making his debut film Hunger: “It’s the whole idea of the body as weapon. If that’s all you have, how do you use it?” McQueen’s feature film depicts the true story of the 1981 Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) hunger strike at Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison. Led by Bobby Sands, the strike was preceded by a “no wash” protest of defilement that pushed the limits of the protestors’ minds and bodies. The film explores how the incarcerated men transgressed the confines of the Maze by weaponizing their bodies to contaminate, disrupt, and acquire agency. The violence and grotesqueness of the men’s actions, captured by McQueen’s unrelenting gaze, reifies a trope of the monstrous other, a form of oppression strategically applied to the Irish by the colonizing English. The men utilized the tenets of this dehumanizing label to disrupt the spatial violence of the notorious (now razed) prison against the backdrop of British colonial rule. In contrast to the absence marking his most recent film, Occupied City, Hunger shows, in striking cinematic detail, how the body can be a disrupter and agitator of carceral and social order.
Hunger opens with a disquieting image of defilement. In the confinement of their cells, incarcerated IRA men are unwashed and naked, save for the prison-issued blankets around their waists. Covered in filth, their hair and beards matted, the men smear their excrement on prison cell walls and pour their piss down hallways outside of their cells. The act was in response to the revocation of “special category status” that granted de facto political status to the imprisoned men.
For over 700 years, the Irish were systematically dehumanized by English and then British colonial rule. Well into the 20th century, they were routinely labeled by the English as mentally inferior, racially contaminated, an Irish Frankenstein, a monster. The word “monster” refers to something that is deemed unnatural and terrifying and is derived from the Latin “monere,” meaning to “warn and demonstrate,” or to “show or make visible.” With the “no wash” protest, the men embodied the stereotypical unclean, monstrous Irish body. The protestors made their defilement visible, both on and outside of their own bodies. Their demonstration was set against a criminal justice system rife with violence, where due process was suspended, and state-sanctioned torture was committed against incarcerated Irish.
In Hunger, McQueen centers the physical manifestation of the monstrous other, born out of a legacy of colonial power, with visceral urgency. The muted colors depicted throughout the film, from the dulled metal of prison bars to the lackluster white snow falling outside, convey a banality periodically broken apart by acts of protest and violence. McQueen draws the viewer into the suffocating atmosphere and ritualized confinement of the Maze prison where the monstrous and the carceral system collide. Prison guards can see all, but the incarcerated men, in their confinement, have limited visibility. A panopticon effect, this ritualized mechanism of observation strips prisoners of much of their power; unable to know when they’re being watched, they regulate their behavior at all times for fear of being punished for any transgressions.
In the film, McQueen reverses the carceral gaze focusing on the protesters’ weaponization of their bodies, by showing the men confronting the prison staff. In one scene, a prison staff member is summoned to one of the protestor’s cells. The staffer is clothed from head to foot in protective gear and is carrying a high-powered water gun. As he begins to enter the room, he stops abruptly. Taking off his face mask, he stares directly ahead. An expression of dread and awe appears across his face. The camera pulls away to reveal what he’s looking at: a large concentric circle of excrement. He puts his face mask back on and begins to spray away the defilement. Yet in this disquieting scene, McQueen’s direction makes clear that the protesters have disrupted the boundaries of power and control.
Through the differing manifestations of protest, the incarcerated IRA men’s physical forms have been inscribed with the legacy of colonial rule and corresponding acts of bodily agency. Anthropologist Allen Feldman wrote in his book Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland, “The prison system for them encapsulated a wider colonial power which had imprinted discourses of domination on their bodies.” He adds, “there was a semantic and historical equivalence between the colonization of Ireland and the colonization of their bodies.”
When demands for special category status are not met, the men abandon the ritualistic display of the monstrous and make the decision to go on a hunger strike. McQueen directs his attention to the starvation and physical breakdown of IRA member Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) as he embarks on his protest. When Sands begins his hunger strike, McQueen’s gaze is fixed on his bodily transformation, connoting yet again the themes of monstrosity and observation. Sands’s emaciated body has shape-shifted into a kind of deformity that renders him physically weak and on full view to prison and medical staff. A doctor examines open sores on his back and arms, compounding the medical and carceral gaze.
Sands’s frail body and open sores draws the prison medical staff in direct contact with his bodily ejections, much like the staff who cleaned the prison cells. As his starvation progresses, his body becomes weaker. In a prison infirmary bed, it looks almost weightless; a feather floats slowly in the foreground, appearing to be heavier than the man. Hunger’s final moments are stark and disquieting. Sands lies in bed, eyes wide open, in agony. When death comes, the stillness of his body connotes the finality of his hunger strike as a white sheet is pulled over his face. Sands, who was elected Member of Parliament while on strike, died 66 days into it. Ultimately, nine incarcerated IRA members died while on hunger strike. After their deaths, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had refused the strikers’ demands, relented, and granted them de facto political status.
The “no-wash” and hunger striking IRA protesters pushed and traversed the boundaries of the prison by willfully embodying the monstrous other. Hunger, released just 10 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the peace agreement that led to power-sharing and paramilitary disarmament in Northern Ireland, is a cinematic exploration of a violent colonial legacy. Steve McQueen’s gaze is one of striking and contemplative realism and an exploration of the body’s capacity to to disrupt and challenge carceral and colonial power.