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Saw the film Hunger last night, the film about IRA member Bobby Sands, who died after a 66-day long hunger strike in the Maze prison in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, in 1981.  The hunger strike, which also claimed the lives of 7 other IRA members in the Maze, was launched by the prisoners in order to regain their status as political prisoners, which had been taken away by the British government in 1976.  

Hunger is the directorial debut of British artist Steve McQueen.  McQueen won the Caméra D'Or award at Cannes in 2008 (for first time directors).  The film won a boatload of awards, also, at film festivals in Los Angeles, Toronto, Venice, and Sydney.  

Wow. What an intense film.  I have been desensitised to so much violence and atrocity in the media over the course of my life, but I came out of this film feeling ill.  The human rights violations and privations depicted in this film are intense.  Of course, the IRA prisoners were in jail for a reason, in Sands' case, for his involvement in a shootout with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in 1976.  But, to my mind, that does not justify torture and brutality in any case.  

The depiction of the "dirty protest" and the IRA prisoners' attempts to regain their status as political prisoners is gripping.  The prisoners, stripped of their political status, were then forced to wear prison uniforms, which they refused.  So they began to cover themselves with sheets and blankets.  The prison guards then refused to let them eat in the messhall, so they had to eat in their cells.  This escalated into the dirty protest when prisoners were attacked by the guards when they left their cells to visit the washroom and shower.  

Hunger is essentially about violence, in all its forms.  It begins with the violence visited upon the prisoners upon their arrival at the Maze, it continues with what appear to be almost ritual beatings by the guards of the prisoners in the prison.  There is the violence caused to the guards in the prison, working in a brutal situation, under brutal conditions.  The prisoners cause their bodies, and their souls, great violence during the dirty protest, quite literally living in their own feces and urine.  Sands himself causes his body great violence as he died of hunger.  Even the soundtrack to the film is violent, it assaults the senses of the viewer.  

McQueen's goal is not to hagiography Sands (there are plenty of other projects that do that), but to depict the brutality of the hunger strike, of the conditions in the Maze, as well as the impact of the violence and atrocity in the prison on the guards themselves.  Part of the story follows Raymond Lohan, a guard. And whilst he is a perpetrator of violence against the prisoners, and against himself, we see him struggle daily with his job, his role in the brutality.  A similar fate befalls members of a riot squad called into the Maze. 

Ultimately, the cost of this violence is high.  And whilst I am not entirely sure what to do with what I came away from this film with, it is clear that McQueen is, in part, asking the audience to consider the violence, the cost of violence, the role of violence, both on a societal and a personal level. 

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