Monday, 20 October 2008

Cork'08 - HUNGER

Before I start to talk about HUNGER, I should mention that it was preceded by Conor Ferguson's short film ATLANTIC, but since I saw that during the shorts programmes I'll cover that one whenever I get round to covering the shorts. (I'm kicking off with all the features first.)

HUNGER is the story of the last few weeks in the life of Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbinder, abusing his body to Christian Bale-like proportions for the part), who died as a result of his protest back in the early 80s. He, and some of his colleagues, were protesting in order to try and have the British government recognise IRA prisoners as political prisoners.

The film is nice in one sense of the word, and very definitely not nice in another. It's nice in that it looks, sounds and feels incredible - not that surprising given that it's the work of artist-turned-director Steve McQueen. It's very definitely not nice however in terms of the unflinching detail of what went on in the prison and what happened to Sands as the strike took its toll.

It's only fair that you should know this going in because there are two things liable to put people off. For one, you'll need a strong stomach - prepare for everything from excrement-covered walls to horrific medical close-ups.

The second obstacle (to some) is, for want of a better description, the "arty" approach it takes. There are lots of visual flourishes, dialogue-free scenes, long takes and so on. The sort of thing, in other words, that usually make Carlos Reygadas films unwatchable but here are used successfully by combining them with things actually happening.

I guess there is a third potential obstacle too, which is the subject matter itself, but whatever your feelings are about the whole Britain-Ireland thing, this film is unlikely to change your mind either way.

In this respect the film is remarkably balanced. On the one hand we have prison officers horribly maltreating the prisoners; on the other hand we're left in no doubt that their job isn't exactly the most comfortable either. As for Sands, the film does not offer an opinion on whether his actions were right or wrong, it merely presents what he did and why.

In addressing this particular aspect, the film offers one scene that is the undoubted highlight. In an ambitious and stunning twenty minute, single-take scene, Sands discusses the implications with a priest (Liam Cunningham). While offering humorous banter to begin with, the conversation descends into the meaty detail before long, and sets the tone for the rest of the film.

The film was followed by a Q&A with Cunningham and the screenwriter of the film Enda Walsh. It was witty and informative, although turned a little sour at one point when an audience member took exception to the attitude of the pair (wrongly, in the eyes of most of the audience). Cunningham addressed the man's point and put the matter to rest with a well-made and reasoned response, so it's a shame that Walsh then had to start a rant about something else which ended up with an incredible outburst of casual profanity that left much of the audience around me rather taken aback, before having another pop at the questioner, just as it seemed the matter was closed. It was rather a shame since Walsh had been very informative and entertaining up until that point.

Still, this should be about the film and the film is certainly a triumph. Just don't expect it to be everyone's cup of tea. If it's a more conventional and event-driven approach you're looking for, you'd probably be best sticking with SOME MOTHER'S SON. If you're in the mood for a brave, breathtaking piece of cinematic art, give HUNGER a try.

Cork coverage to be continued...

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