Hunger is an intense film. Stylistically it’s somewhat unconventional, however not in the sense of being surreal or incomprehensibly artsy. It’s pretty straightforward in its way.
The British and the Irish have been at each other’s throats for centuries, with the primary bone of contention in modern times being the fact that a chunk of northern Ireland is not part of the country of Ireland but instead is governed by the British as part of the United Kingdom.
One of the groups fighting to unite Ireland under one government was the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which grew notorious for its violent tactics, which it considered defensive military action, and the British and most of the Western world denounced as terrorism.
IRA members in British custody insisted they were entitled to be treated as political prisoners or prisoners of war. The British held that doing this would afford them a form of undeserved legitimacy, so they were equally insistent that the IRA prisoners were criminals who had committed murder and other serious crimes and were entitled to no status other than that of any other convicted criminal.
In the early 1980s, with the odious Margaret Thatcher in office, both sides were at their most stubborn, demanding, and resistant, and most unconstrained about enforcing their will with violence. This is the time period of this movie.
The location of this movie, virtually all of it anyway, is the British prison where several IRA members were being held.
The movie can neatly be divided into three sections. Roughly the first half establishes the conditions in the prison. The IRA prisoners wear no clothes, because all they are allowed are standard prison clothes, which they refuse to wear as political prisoners. So they wrap themselves up in blankets. They do not shave or cut their hair.
They also protest by refusing to use the toilet. They smear their feces all over the walls of their cells.
Periodically the guards goon one of them, sometimes in order to forcibly cut his hair and shave him and hose down his cell, and sometimes for no discernible reason beyond that that’s the kind of place it is and that’s the kind of people they are.
In the past there had been various other protests, including hunger strikes, plus on the outside the IRA continued to attack British targets, including assassinating employees of this prison. But nothing was working in terms of getting them the prison conditions they demanded.
For this entire portion of the movie, there is almost no dialogue. (And I couldn’t understand some of what little there is due to the Irish accents.) It just shows you the nitty gritty of the beatings, the feces-smeared cells, and all the rest. It doesn’t tell much of a story, but takes you inside the life these people lived for years in this prison.
Then the second section takes place over the next twenty to twenty-five minutes. This consists of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands and a priest who has come at his request, in an animated, sometimes antagonistic conversation.
Sands and the other prisoners have decided on another hunger strike. But this time he says they will not stop based on some compromise settlement or on promises to negotiate. It will be a fast unto death unless all of their demands are met.
Instead of all starting at the same time, they will stagger it. One will start, then two weeks later a second, then two weeks after that a third, etc. Sands will go first.
The priest tries to talk him out of it, though they’re both on the same side of the conflict with the British. They debate politics, morality, history, religion.
It’s a very different kind of intensity from the first section of the movie. Now instead of brutal conditions with almost no words, it’s a stark unchanging room and a lot of words, where the viewer has nothing to focus on but the ideas being expressed.
Effective in a different way, but effective.
Then the remainder of the film, the third section, returns to the observation of nearly wordless suffering as the starving Sands gradually deteriorates.
This too is certainly powerful stuff. Two things nagged at me about it, though. One, there’s a limit to how realistic it can be, because they can’t have the actor himself waste away without putting his life at great risk, and strategic lighting and camera angles and such only goes so far. He’s thin, but he hardly looks like an Auschwitz inmate.
When prisoners are being beat up, you know they aren’t really getting beat up, but at least it looks like they are. He really doesn’t look all that much like he’s starving. It calls for a different degree of suspension of disbelief.
Two, in effect the movie falls prey to the same “great man” syndrome for which mainstream historians and journalists are criticized. It becomes very much the Bobby Sands story. We see little or nothing of any other hunger striker.
But there were dozens of them. They all suffered, and many of them died. The hunger strike was all of them. But in the movie, this is the Bobby Sands hunger strike, and all other participants are peripheral.
I don’t know that it was the wrong decision to make in terms of art, but it made me uncomfortable to see everyone else’s suffering, everyone else’s principles, everyone else’s life utterly ignored so we could focus on the details of Sands’s ordeal.
Moving on, certainly I can’t watch a movie like this without reflecting on the moral ramifications of their hunger strike, especially with me being such a big Gandhi fan and having thought so much about his principles and tactics, including hunger strikes.
Gandhi took a great deal of criticism for his hunger strikes, more so than just about anything else he did in his life. They were condemned as indirectly coercive, for one thing.
I mostly don’t agree with the criticisms, because of how meticulous he was about certain aspects of his hunger strikes. Not enough to make them completely unproblematic, but enough to where they were far, far purer as a tactic than half the things people do in life (and 99% of the things they do in politics and public affairs) that never draw any criticism.
This is what provides such a contrast between what he did, and what Sands and his cohorts did.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that Gandhian hunger strikes were directed at allies, not adversaries. Not completely so, but that was the intent anyway. There were times that in effect they ended up being partly “against” the British, but that was more “collateral damage.”
They were a form of penance for whatever indirect role he had played in bringing about the state of affairs to which he objected, and they were a way to try to focus the attention and consciences of the people on his side, a form of penance for their collective wrongs.
The tactic (and I don’t know that “tactic” is even a good word here) was accompanied by constant reminders that people should only change to bring themselves into conformity with his wishes if they agreed with him on the merits, that it would be wrong to go against their judgment on the matter out of a desire to keep him alive. Critics will say that it doesn’t matter what he said, that in practice that’s exactly what will happen—people will grudgingly go along with his wishes just enough so they don’t have to feel responsible for his death. But certainly he was very explicit, and I think sincere, in urging people not to respond this way.
And of course it all occurred in the context of his overall nonviolence. He contended that very, very few people could justifiably engage in hunger strikes, and even them only very rarely. You have to have lived a life of truth, nonviolence, poverty, service, denial of ego, benevolence, etc. in order to trust that when your conscience tells you that something is worth taking that kind of a stand, that it really is. You have to have earned the right to call people’s attention to an injustice by willingly suffering for it and even dying for it.
Clearly much of that is missing in the case of the IRA hunger strikers. A large part of the purpose of the strike is to put pressure on the British, not to serve penance for the violence of the Irish and inspire them to stop and look at what they are doing and recommit to a more moral path.
I still don’t know that I would say it’s coercive, but I suppose it is in some senses and not in others. But in any case, it’s trying to change the situation—world opinion, the willingness of the Irish to rise up against the British, etc.—so that the British will find it in their self-interest to do things that they don’t agree with on the merits.
So in many respects it’s not at all similar to Gandhi’s hunger strikes.
Yet, still it speaks to me. Where many people are absolutely aghast at the tactic in general or at least the specific use of it by Sands and the IRA prisoners (I recall at the time some people commenting that this form of suicide is worse than murder), on a gut level I don’t respond negatively to it like that. Even this dubious a use of the hunger strike is something that I respect.
Because to me the overriding message of it is that the person is willing to die for what they believe. And even a flawed version of that is head and shoulders above the indifferent person, or worse yet the person who is willing to kill for what he believes (which at other times is what these very people did).
Do I wish they had chosen the hunger strike as part of a thorough renunciation of violence, a shifting from creating pressure by causing suffering to awakening people’s consciences through self-suffering? Absolutely. Like I say, morally their use of the hunger strike is way, way below Gandhi’s use of it.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still above a lot of other tactics, including their own at other times, and worthy of admiration.
There’s something about it that I empathize with at a deep level, something that makes me say that regardless of how impure it is, regardless of how I feel about everything else they did that led up to it, regardless of how I feel even about the rightness or wrongness of their cause, they rose a great deal in my estimation as a result of what they chose to do at that point, and how they stuck to it through great suffering. (Starving to death over the course of a couple months is excruciating. Even if the movie couldn’t fully convey that, it conveyed it enough to get that message across.)
There comes a time when all that other stuff goes out the window, when you realize, not that you’re too weak to fight anymore, but that the one way you have left to fight is to say no, and to take the consequences for doing so. No matter how imperfect you are, no matter if you haven’t done everything in your power to earn the “right” to take that stand, sometimes it all comes down to “No. I won’t take it anymore. I won’t let my desire to live overcome my realization that this is wrong and not to be accepted.”
If I were one of those prisoners, and somehow had the courage to do what they did, it wouldn’t even be about trying to force the British. It would be, “You do what you’re gonna do. All I know is I won’t cooperate with it any longer, not even to the degree necessary to stay alive.”
The world needs more people willing to die for a matter of principle (and fewer willing to kill for it).
The final section of Hunger captured that well enough to reach me emotionally. And the movie as a whole is different, interesting and intense enough for me to give it a moderate recommendation.