Bobby Sands’ Hunger

It is not usual to commemorate, especially, 27th anniversaries. Perhaps, fittingly, since he died at age 27, the 27th anniversary of Bobby Sands’ lingering death by hunger strike at Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland in 1981 gets powerfully evoked and the complex issues around it penetratingly raised in Steve McQueen’s hauntingly beautiful film, Hunger. Peter Bradshaw, reviewing the film in the Oct.31, Guardian, calls it an "explicit, but icily brilliant and superbly acted film," Michael Fassbender, who plays the role of Sands and whose emaciated appearance is, almost, at times, unbearable to watch, recently was named best actor of the year for his harrowing performance by the British Independent Film awards.

McQueen, a decorated artist specializing in video art in museums (he won the Turner prize for art in 1999 and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2008), has a deft artist’s knack for fiercely concentrating on image and capturing, from moment to moment, just what things look like. Visually, the film is stunningly arresting. Originally, McQueen had proposed making it as a silent film. In the end, there is sound, some dialogue (including a crucial dialogue between Sands and his priest, Dominick Moran). What lasts, however, are the quiet scenes of a guard washing down the urine stained corridors off the prison cells; of another guard scrubbing off blood from his knuckles, bruised from beating the prisoners; of a prisoner standing at a wire mesh opening, off his excrement covered cell walls, trying to entice a bee to alight on his fingers. Rarely have images in film so captured my attention and lasted so long in my memory. To be sure, I blanched at times and almost turned away from the brutal action which the film depicts, especially a truly torturous beating of the prisoners as they ran, naked, a gauntlet of swinging batons from the guards. As Bradshaw notes in his review of the film, "the compositions show how violence and hate and fear were inscribed into the very brickwork" of Long Kesh. Not by chance did fifty prison guards who served in that hell hole of oppression eventually commit suicide. To be sure, sixteen of them were also violently assassinated by the IRA. But the film does not glorify the violence of either the IRA or the Northern Irish constabulary. One crucial scene shows a young British member of the constabulary, dressed in helmet and wielding his shield and baton. As he waits for the signal to start the torture of the prisoners, he squirms with apprehension. Later, during the melee of the beatings, he absconds behind a pillar and weeps against the brutality.

If Hunger is not fit for the faint-hearted, neither is it fodder for the light headed. A central scene of dialogue involves Sands and the prison chaplain. They are two men from the same side of the working-class tracks, both wanting the same thing (a unified Republican Ireland) but wanting it differently. The priest tries to dissuade Sands from what he calls "suicide" and to urge further attempts at negotiation. Sands responds that four years of protest to gain "special status" as prisoners of war had gotten nowhere, even after the "dirty protest," where the Irish prisoners refused to wear prison garb and smeared their walls with defecation. Unlike the priest whose family was relatively respectable, Sands’ family had been burned out of their home by loyalists. Later, Sands was forced at gunpoint by the loyalists out of a good paying mechanic’s job.

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The dialogue between the priest and Sands leaves the viewer in a conundrum. The priest’s plea seems so humanely correct, religiously sensible. Sands’ rejoinder that what he was engaging in was not suicide but martyrdom also had a ring of deep conviction. The Irish draw upon a long history of fasting against oppression, notably the famous fast unto death of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terrence McSwinney in 1920. Gandhi, after all, got his idea of a hunger strike from the Irish. If the opponent never yields, I wondered, is it ever still morally legitimate to continue the fast, as McSwinney and Sands did, unto death? In his prison diary (written on prison toilet paper), Sands had written on the first day of his fast: "I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world--May God have mercy on my soul." The last words he wrote in that diary were: "They won’t break me because the desire for freedom and the freedom of the Irish people is in my heart. The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom. It is then we will see the rising of the moon." Even if mistaken in his means, Sands’ hunger was for dignity, for basic justice and human rights, for the simple revenge which, he claimed, would lie in the eventual innocent laughter of his generation’s children.

Despite its having won prestigious prizes, such as the Camera D’Or at Cannes for first feature film, the Hickox award from the British Independent Film awards and best picture at the Sydney film festival, I suspect Hunger will not get a wide showing, except in cities such as New York and Los Angeles. I hastened to the art theatre where it was playing in Los Angeles, fairly sure that it would not last more than a week. In his famous prison poem, The Rhythm of Time, Sands’ wrote: "There’s an inner thing in every man, do you know this thing my friend? It has withstood the blows of a million years, and will do so to the end. It was born when time did not exist, and it grew up out of life; it cut down evil’s strangling vines, like a slashing, searing knife... It wept by the waters of Babylon, and when all men were at a loss, it screeched in writhing agony, and it hung bleeding from the cross. ..It lightens the dark of this prison cell, it thunders forth its might. It is the ’undauntable thought,’ my friend, the thought that says: ’I’m right’"

John Coleman, S.J.

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