I first watched Hunger (McQueen, 2008) last year and second time around the camerawork and editing style really stands out, switching from point-of-view shots and fast cutting, to distancing composition and long takes. McQueen uses the former in the most violent scenes when the guards are brutalising the inmates, creating a visceral portrait of life in Maze prison. He switches to the latter when he shows the prisoners’ (and the guards’) more contemplative moments. It’s an interesting mix and it makes me question why McQueen has chosen to play his scenes as such, because there’s clearly a design in his direction.
The fast paced POV shots are extraordinarily adept at putting the audience in the position of the prisoners and engendering a raw, emotional response. But if McQueen had maintained this style throughout the film it would have almost certainly lost its impact; the quieter moments would have been subsumed by the violence. Instead, by switching to longer takes for these scenes, he uses the detachment inherent in this style of cinematic storytelling to engage the audience with the events on screen in a way that wouldn’t be possible using faster shot-countershot Hollywood style cutting. It pushes the audience to question what they’re seeing and hearing. And by not giving the audience as much information about these scenes he gives them their own identity, making them equally as interesting and vital to the film to the violence that connects them. By mixing the cinemas of embodiment and empathy in this way, McQueen has crafted a film which powerfully draws its audience in. Whether or not we agree with his point, he is extremely adept at making it.
The seventeen minute shot of the discussion between Sands and Father Moran is the most obvious example of long take in Hunger. But it’s also notable for the dialogue itself and how it reveals Sands’ self-image. The two talk at length about Sands childhood and an incident that happened on a cross-country running trip. The way Sands relates this story to Father Moran seems to demonstrates pride taken to its narcissistic extreme. His recollection of how he felt the other boys looked down on him highlights a long held sense of persecution:
We had the idea that they’re lording it over us a bit, you know; looking down on us; I’m sensing it, anyway. (McQueen, 2008)
And his assertion that he was the one who took charge and earned the other boys’s respect as a result speaks of someone who’s always needed the approval of others:
But I knew I did the right thing by that wee foal, and I could take the punishment for all our boys. I had the respect of them other boys now, and I knew that. (McQueen, 2008)
This story and the way that he tells it draws a portrait of a man who has been formed from a dangerous blend of stubbornness, pride and a need to feel important; the kind of person for whom giving up is an unacceptable humiliation. At this point we realise that his death is inevitable. It also seems natural that this memory is the one that comes back to in him in his final moment. It has become his own mythology, the story that he’s told himself time and time again; the origin myth which he believes defines him.
The flaws in Sands are matched by the flaws in those around him, the brutality and sadism of the guards, and the jealousy that Father Moran shows for his brother’s success. The whole film explores what happens when we allow these emotions of pride, stubbornness, fear, jealousy and rage to dominate our decisions; what happens when we refuse to negotiate, and how far people will go in an effort to be remembered, memorialized and mythologized.
The question of how biased the film is in portraying one side of the political debate over another is an interesting one, and one that I’m still unsure about. We get very little context as to why the prisoners are incarcerated and Hunger could be seen as a glorification of them and their crimes. And yet, in a situation as complex as The Troubles is it ever possible to give enough context? There will always be more to the story, more history and context, a line has to be drawn somewhere. Critics of McQueen’s approach might say that he drew his line so tightly around Sands that Hunger borders on propaganda. It definitely makes uneasy watching. However, there are subtleties in McQueen’s film which makes it less clear cut. The narcissistic tone of Fassbender’s performance is a more obvious one, but the way that religion is used as a tool by the prisoners, rather than something which they genuinely believe in, also stands out. And I find myself seeing the film as a question more than a statement.
Ultimately it makes me wonder how responsible a filmmaker is expected to be in portraying the truth, especially when presenting events which an audience may not be familiar with and may not have their own context for. Are they bound to portray events as realistically and with as much context as possible? Or is it the responsibility of the audience to question a film’s bias and investigate for themselves the events that are being dramatised on screen?
McQueen, S., (2008) Hunger, Film4