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Hunger follows life in the Maze Prison, Northern Ireland with an interpretation of the highly emotive events surrounding the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike, led by Bobby Sands. With an epic eye for detail, the film provides a timely exploration of what happens when body and mind are pushed to the uttermost limit. Written by
I saw Hunger at TIFF. I heard it was a hot ticket, and pre-festival buzz was good so I was elated when I got tickets. McQueen uses very little dialogue throughout the film, instead choosing to communicate through strong visuals and raw imagery. The film is less about the politics behind the IRA conflict, and more about the suffering of the prisoners and the dehumanization of them at the hands of the guards. It is not an easy film to watch. The imagery is so strong and raw that I couldn't help but grimace during some parts. The lady sitting next to me had her hands covering her face at one point, and was visibly crying. McQueen holds nothing back. The prisoners are shown smearing excrement over their cell walls and pouring their prison food over the floor until it goes bad and are covered with bugs. McQueen demonstrates the unwillingness of the prisoners to be stripped of their dignity (by conforming to prison demands), despite being stripped of everything else. There are some very long takes with no dialogue, with a particularly long one of a prisoner cleaning himself for what seemed like forever. The atmosphere in these scenes is so visceral that one can almost feel the filth and smell the stench of the prisoners. There is also one particularly brutal scene where the guards make two lines, and each nonconforming prisoner is marched through the middle while being repeatedly beaten by batons. Afterward, one of the officers walks outside and weeps. It is then that we learn to see the guards as human; perhaps even victims trapped within a conflict with no resolution in sight.
The story of Bobby Sands takes precedent about half way into the film. The most dialogue in the films occurs during the scenes between Sands and his priest. Unfortunately the Irish accents are thick, and I found the scene hard to decipher. The final scenes in the film are tough to watch as we witness Sands' slow dissent into the throes of starvation. It is hard to imagine anyone subjecting themselves to such suffering, yet 9 other prisoners followed suit. Fassbender is very good in the role; giving us a character that is unrelenting in his choices and beliefs. He genuinely believes his suffering serves a purpose, and though some may disagree with his choices, one can't help but admire his conviction.
Hunger is an artfully done film, which is no surprise considering McQueen is a visual artist. It is visually moving and challenging piece of work. It is hard to believe that it's his first feature, and easy to understand why it won the Camera d'or, and now the Discovery award at TIFF. I would have preferred a bit more back story to the conflict (I know close to nothing of its history), but then again, choosing to put more focus on politics may have taken away from other elements of the film. Lastly, I appreciate McQueen's unwillingness to take a stand on the conflict/protest in his film. He allows the viewers to make their own judgments; he's merely here to tell the story.
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