The bathing of bloodied knuckles in a small sink opens the film Hunger, the debut feature by British video artist Steve McQueen. As the owner of these knuckles silently proceeds through his daily rituals, the film offers no suggestions of who this person may be or why there’s blood on his hands. The stillness and lack of emotion in this sequence betray a strong feeling of unease, even before the man drops to his knees to look under his automobile for a car bomb. It’s still not until a subsequent shot of this man closing his work locker with a Union Jack keychain in hand that the audience might even surmise this person to be a Loyalist prison guard in Northern Ireland. But much before this reveal, this rigorous, mostly silent presentation of daily events casually mixed with evidence of brutality has already created a disquieting atmosphere.
It’s not entirely surprising that director McQueen has chosen to open his film about Bobby Sands’s 1981 hunger strike in the Maze prison by promoting audience identification with a Loyalist guard. McQueen has admitted that his interest in the strike stemmed from his remembrance of watching the news as a preteen in London in the early Eighties and seeing an image of Sands’s face on TV every evening. It’s not surprising then that McQueen’s film feels strongly indebted to Britain and Ireland’s broadcast censorship policies, specifically designed to keep the IRA out of the media; this began in Ireland in 1971 with Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, and became official policy in the UK with the British Broadcasting Ban in 1988. Both official policies forbade anyone related to Sinn Féin or the IRA from speaking on broadcast media, and throughout the Eighties state-sponsored television channels in the UK routinely censored or canceled documentary stories on the Troubles. This was further compounded by the fact that Northern Irish civilians routinely refused to speak to the media for fear of retribution from either side, creating a dearth of Republican voices on the Irish and British airwaves. McQueen’s film seems both a reaction to and a reaffirmation of the censorship policy in the UK: he tells the story of the hunger strike almost entirely through strong, evocative visuals, but in doing so, he continues to deny these Irish historical figures access to language, favoring extradiegetic archival sound bites of British politicians to the voices of his characters. As a result, his depiction of the strike identifies with Loyalist and British views by strongly affecting viewers’ emotions without allowing for any political dialogue.
Click here to read Caroline McKenzie’s review of Hunger in its entirety.