The human catastrophe of the Dirty Protests, which culminated the disaster of the 1981 Hunger Strikes, is told through the story of Bobby Sands and the Prison Officers involved.
Some films are brilliant (The Dark Knight) and some are important (Ten Canoes). It is rare that these two attributes come together, and when they do the results can be explosive. Crash and Schindler’s List come to mind, and to the pantheon can be added Steve McQueen’s masterpiece Hunger.
There is no back-story, which I feel is the most important decision that McQueen made as it removes politics from the equation and allows the film to be straight down the middle.
Cinematically this picture is a tour de force. Hunger is McQueen’s first foray into film, as he is known largely as a Turner Prize winning visual artist. His use of single shots is incredibly powerful and he uses silence as a tool to challenge the viewer to reflect on the subject. A scene where a warder is sweeping up had a strange impact on me.
The pace of the film is a total triumph, as we are party to a simple scene of an officer smoking a cigarette followed by a sharp spasm of intense violence, which causes one of the warders to weep on the other side of the wall, out of sight from his colleagues.
We are not introduced to Sands until around a third of the film has passed, and again this decision means that McQueen eliminates the possibility that we may overly identify with Sands’ personal story. We are privy to the base squalor of the H Blocks and the Provo’s struggle to regain Political Status, which had been rightly removed by the no nonsense Roy Mason, and re iterated (again rightly) by Thatcher, through the experience of others.
Let’s be 100% crystal clear about one thing here.
The Provisional IRA was, and is made up of criminal scum.
There is no justification, especially from the Left, for their vile actions and this is one Socialist that believes that Margaret Thatcher was absolutely right not to grant this demand from people who were prepared to go into an old people’s home and gun down a guy in cold blood in front of the staff and residents. An old peoples home. Just process and reflect on that for a moment.
Back to the film. Liam Cunningham and Michael Fassbender deliver one of the best scenes committed to celluloid in this country as a priest and Sands debate the why and wherefores of the War on the outside, and the context of Sand’s plans to up the ante on the inside.
This is a twenty-minute single shot affair, completely compelling and real, making you imagine what Sands believed he was trying to achieve, but at the same time not eulogising what was a truly troubled, yet passionate man who had clearly been brain washed, perhaps due to fatal flaws in his character, into a desperate and tragic journey to certain death for a cause that delivered nothing but pain and horrible suffering for thousands of people.
I left the cinema largely in charge of my emotions. But one question suddenly hit me, exploding into my head causing me to lose control and weep bitter tears.
WHAT WAS IT ALL FOR?
I lived in Northern Ireland for three years and brushed past a variety of people, learning a lot about them and myself in the process. It was a privilege.
But even as a by stander it is impossible not to have been affected by the War going on around us.
Person A. Brother gunned down by the British Army at a checkpoint. Her life ruined and defined by others by what happened. Lionised by Republicans, shunned by the rest having never asked for any of it.
Person B. Cousin murdered by the Provos.
Person C. Left University to look after his parents after his brother was imprisoned for Provo activity.
Person D. Threatened by the Provos and sent bullets in the post for not getting the OK from the organisation to run for Students Union President. He withdrew when his Mum copped abuse in Town.
Person E. Cousin killed by the Army.
Person F. I met this guy in Farnham when I lived there and despite the terrible things that had happened to him a serving soldier in the North, had nothing but good things to say about both communities there. His best mate was killed by a Provo land mine, and his lost colleagues at the Drop in Well massacre in Ballykelly. He had a breakdown on Christmas Day 1995 and never worked again.
And finally. The piece de resistance. Declan Moen from Letterkenny in Donegal.
There is plenty I could write to excuse what Declan did. His chronic shyness, inadequacy and the such like. The man who came with me when we were paired up with local families for a feed by our Parish Priest, who played that quintessential English game of cricket with us, who rubbed along with our gang from all over the UK and Ireland.
But I’m not going to. He joined the Provos. He dissembled and crept about. He part took in shameful and vile acts as a facilitator, giving succour to those who committed the unforgivable. He helped bring suffering and visceral misery to countless familes.
Declan Moen ended up in jail. Declan Moen took part in the “Peace Process” as Officer Commanding in the Prisons. And to prove satire is alive and well, Declan Moen takes British Crown Tax Payers money to lecture on crime at Leicester University.
Was all this tragic waste meant to result in Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness grinning, gurning and sharing a cuppa with the British Prime Minister in Stormont as part of an Assembly that recognises Partition?
I doubt it.
War and conflict are generally futile, and if ever this needed proving the 3,500 deaths all over the UK and Ireland that resulted from this War are all the evidence you will ever need.
Thank you Steve McQueen.