Starvation or submission? Hunger tells the true story of Bobby Sands

by Beacon Staff • April 8, 2009

iHunger/i is not a movie you will feel good about afterwards.

It is so brutally real that, at times, it is hard to watch. However, it's what makes iHunger/i such a cohesive movie, because in order to truthfully portray the events the film is based on, the utmost honesty must be exercised.

iHunger/i tells the story of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), an incarcerated Irish Republican Army soldier who leads a controversial hunger strike.

The movie is set in 1981 at the height of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, which pitted Catholic Irish nationalists, led by the IRA, against Protestant British residents and police officers.

Members of the IRA used violence to further their cause, killing numerous British officers and loyalists with car-bombs and night raids.

Many IRA soldiers, when arrested, were taken to the Maze prison, which became notorious for the inhumane treatment of its prisoners. Imprisoned IRA soldiers demanded political prisoner status, but the British government treated them like common criminals or worse. The prisoners first protested this by refusing to wear uniforms and not bathing or cutting their hair.

The film opens with a quiet shot of prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) soaking his bruised and cut knuckles in a sink as he gets ready for work. One aspect of Hunger that is impossible to ignore is the sparseness of dialogue. The silence and realism are reminiscent of Gus Van Sant's iLast Days/i and iElephant/i.

There is hardly any speaking during the first half of the film that could be considered conversation by any stretch of the term.

Instead, director Steve McQueen (not that Steve McQueen) uses this section of the film to silently set up the story.

The audience is given insight into the situation through the eyes of a newly imprisoned IRA soldier named Davey (Brian Milligan) and Lohan. Audiences see the prisoners in their cells, huddled, cold and naked, feces smeared all over the walls. There are no words spoken. All that can be heard is the heavy breathing of the men and the screams of prisoners being beaten by guards. The unabashed realism is, at times, suffocating.

After the audience is completely immersed in the psychologically and physically tortuous atmosphere of the Maze prison, McQueen introduces the main character of the film, Bobby Sands.

What ensues is the only scene of substantial dialogue in the whole film. In this scene, Sands reveals his planned hunger strike to a priest named Father Moran (Liam Cunningham). In the 17-minute long conversation, McQueen uses only two camera angles.

The two characters launch into a brilliant debate, written by McQueen and Enda Walsh, over the merits of Sands' latest plan.

The exchange between the priest and Sands focuses mainly on whether it is conscionable to stage a protest in which the ultimate outcome is the death of its participants. Father Moran claims that Sands isn't protesting; he's just committing suicide.

All kinds of arguments are brought up, both religious and political. The conversation is so intricate and moving that it completely makes up for the general lack of previous dialogue. The deliberate words of Sands are heart wrenchingly honest. This scene presents one of the main questions of the film: is freedom something that should be achieved by any means necessary?

Hunger does a good job of giving a balanced portrayal to both Bobby Sands and the IRA. Sands is not exclusively glorified as a hero, as Father Moran serves as the counterbalance to his undying dedication; he presents an argument against the extremity of a hunger strike.

There are also scenes that portray the evil acts committed by both the IRA and the British. This fairness allows the viewer to decide for themselves who the heroes and villains are.

iHunger/i makes no statement as to whether the hunger strike was martyrdom, protest or suicide. Bobby Sands and the nine other men who suffered with him may have been courageous, or they may have been recklessly fanatical.

Either way, iHunger/i is a memorable portrayal of Bobby Sands' relentless struggle for freedom at any and all costs.